In the past two decades, energy research has gained growing importance as key pillar of sustainable development. Renewable energy nowadays represents a consolidated area of research, while energy efficiency has become more important rather recently. Energy research, as conducted at University of Geneva, deals with complex and extensive systems (rather than individual devices) and it is interdisciplinary in nature: it is rooted in natural and engineering sciences as well as economics and strives to address aspects from the perspective of other disciplines.

Demand and supply

Essentially all human activities are driven by energy, of which the vast majority nowadays originates from non-renewable sources. Global energy use has increased rapidly and continually for the past 150 years as a consequence of industrialization, the rising world population and growing wealth; and for the same reasons global energy use is projected to continue to increase in the coming decades, even in the most ambitious policy scenarios. 

While the currently low energy prices seem to suggest that oil and gas reserves are plentiful, there is consensus that roughly half of the conventional oil reserves have been consumed or will be consumed rather soon. As a consequence, conventional oil production will start decreasing in the coming decades. For this and other reasons, it is likely that oil prices will increase again rather soon. Conventional gas reserves are similar in size as conventional oil reserves. And while shale gas exploitation has led to abundant gas supply in some parts of the world, this is not the case for Europe. In 2015, the exploitation of Europe’s largest gas field (the Groningen gas field in the Netherlands) was decreased by two thirds compared to 2013 in order to reduce the risk of dangerous earthquakes. It is also widely known that there is serious concern about coal use due to its high carbon emissions and nuclear energy has become less acceptable since the Fukushima disaster in 2011. At the same time, also the use of renewable energy sources is subject to some controversies (e.g., geothermal energy due to seismic activity or wind energy for reasons of visual intrusion).

In conclusion, while no acute energy supply shortage is expected at the global level in the coming decades, it is also widely acknowledged that energy supply and demand systems urgently need to be transformed.

Impacts of energy use

Today energy use leads to a wide variety of health and environmental problems and it is accompanied by numerous economic and social challenges. For example, energy use causes by far most sulfur and NOx emissions (80-90% of all emissions) which, in turn, lead to respiratory diseases, heart disease and acid rain. Emissions released as a consequence of incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels (fossil as well as biomass) include carbon monoxide, particulate matter (aerosols including soot), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other pollutants. These emissions cause household air pollution, outdoor air pollution and pollution at the workplace (GEA, 2012) and they lead to short-term and long-term adverse health impacts.

Carbon dioxide is by far the most important greenhouse gas (GHG), with 80% of all global emissions originating from fossil fuel use. Energy use is also a substantial driver of methane emissions, the second largest GHG contributing to anthropogenic global warming. GHG emissions cause serious environmental, health and social impacts in the medium and long term (as explained by ISE’s climate research group).

Need for the turnaround

There is wide consensus about the need for an energy turnaround, not only in Switzerland but also in other European countries and elsewhere. The New Energy Policy of the Swiss Energy Strategy 2050 foresees a reduction of final energy demand per capita (including both fuels and electricity) by 54% between 2000 and 2050 (by 43% until 2035). Per capita electricity consumption is projected to decrease by 18% until 2050 (by 13% until 2035). In order to compensate for the nuclear phase-out and to ensure sustained reduction of CO2 emissions, the share of renewable energy in total energy use is foreseen to increase from approximately 180 PJ in 2010 to more than 310 PJ in 2050. At the global level, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include doubling of the rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030, a substantial increase of the share of renewable energy and universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services until 2030.

The grand challenges and the need for a multifaceted strategy

In general terms, the single most important challenge is to make new and more sustainable energy systems technically and economically competitive with the incumbent energy systems. More specifically, the intermittency of renewable energy needs to be addressed as well as the related costs, environmental impacts and social aspects. Further challenges are costs and social aspects of energy efficiency technologies and moreover, the need for changes in consumer patterns and strategic decision making in order to make the energy policy objectives attainable.

Given the diversity of the challenges and the myriad of actors (all private, public and commercial actors are energy users) there is no single policy measure ensuring the required change. Instead, a wide range of policy instruments and multi-level governance are needed in order to involve - for example along industrial value chains - the various actors from R&D to retail. The complexity is enhanced by the fact that the various energy technologies and strategic solutions advance at different rates, which continuously raises the question about the optimal solution.

Key research questions

A selection of key research questions emanating from these challenges includes

  • the optimal balance between the use of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures
  • the optimal mix of different types of renewable energy sources and the optimal portfolio of energy efficiency measures
  • the appropriate role for energy storage at different scales, possibly making use of new technical synergies and organizational solutions (e.g., the use of batteries in electric cars for peak shaving)
  • the optimal mix of centralized and decentralized energy technologies
  • the optimal solution for heat integration (e.g., by use of waste heat) and for energy demand side management (e.g., with or without smart meters)
  • the optimal mix of coercive regulatory measures versus market-based and voluntary approaches and the respective design of each of them
  • and, in more general terms, maximization of the driving forces favouring the pursued energy transition and minimizing the respective barriers.

The latter point includes, for example, behavioural change, thereby raising questions about the role of efficiency versus sufficiency and how best to trigger the desired changes. It is also important to realize that the optimal solution depends on the objective function (i.e., the parameter to be optimized, e.g. the effectiveness of a measure or, alternatively, its cost-effectiveness). In turn, the choice of the objective function may depend on the circumstances, e.g. the concrete situation in a given country, region, city or neighbourhood.

Analytical tools and foundations

The analysis of the questions outlined above requires a selection of analytical tools, the further development of which represents a research area in itself. The tools include:

  • Bottom-up and top-down energy models
  • Micro-economic evaluation methods
  • Macro-economic models
  • GIS model for spatial analysis
  • Multi-criteria assessment

Depending on the research question the tools are developed for different scales (local, national and international) and scopes (regional and temporal). For operation of the tools, tailored and reliable datasets are required which are typically not readily available and which are time-intensive to create. In order to facilitate the discussion concerning the energy transition and to help overcoming controversies, it is one of our missions to make as much as possible of the datasets underlying our research publicly available.


Energy research as performed at UNIGE supports the energy transition by providing policy-relevant findings and by informing individual and strategic decisions of the various stakeholders - from citizens, to companies and public bodies. To this end, the energy group conducts research for local and national authorities (e.g., cantonal offices for energy as well as federal office for energy), for international bodies (e.g., the European Commission and the UN system), for utilities as well as for the private sector.