The carbon-neutral future is electric4 February 2022
Global electrification will be more than 50% of total energy demand – up from 20% today. And certain regions of the world will go far beyond this level of electrification?
Electricity has improved our standards of living since its invention more than two hundred years ago. But the changes that deepen electrification in the name of sustainability will bring over the coming 30 years will go beyond anything that we’ve seen so far. Global electrification will be more than 50 percent of total energy demand – up from 20 percent (today). And certain regions of the world will go far beyond this level of electrification.
Electricity will be the backbone of the entire energy system
Three building blocks are stacking up to deliver this carbon-neutral electric future: connecting larger volumes of wind, solar and hydro to the grids; electrifying the world’s transportation, building and industrial sectors; and, where direct electrification is either not efficient or impossible, introducing complementary and sustainable energy carriers, such as green hydrogen.
Combined, these blocks will give us the foundation upon which electricity will become the backbone of the entire energy system and on which sustainable societies can progress. The most efficient, cleanest and cost-effective way to electrify the world is to build renewable energy capacity and to harness energy from wind, sunshine and water that nature provides. As a result, we estimate that global renewable energy capacity will grow by at least a factor of ten until 2050.
Challenges: overcoming complexity and expanding the world’s grids
Electrification, powered by this huge growth in variable renewable power generation, brings a host of new challenges – but two stand out most to me: tackling the complexity arising from a greater number of widely distributed and less predictable power generation sites, and the need to significantly upgrade and expand grid capacity to accommodate the rapid growth in demand.
In order to manage fluctuating electricity production and new consumption patterns, our energy system needs to become more flexible and new tools are required to deliver this. Innovative grid components using power electronics will provide the operational flexibility needed to enable grids to become more efficient. Sensors will provide the necessary information and digital solutions will process the huge amount of information in intelligent grid control centers. This will enable faster decision-making in a much more dynamic environment than we have ever seen in the past.
The second challenge, expanding grid capacity, can be tackled in two ways: optimizing the utilization of current networks and upgrading and extending power systems. Here, we can rely on clever combinations of power electronics and digital technologies to optimize copper and iron efficiencies on existing power grids. A recent example of power system improvement together with renewable integration can be seen in Scotland, where a new HVDC link is being added to connect the Shetland Islands to the UK transmission system.
The link will enhance security of power supply and help to transmit wind power generated on the islands, contributing to the UK’s decarbonisation target of bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in the future.
Grid capacity will need to cope with more than twice the electrical energy of today. This includes the expansion of high-voltage networks and interconnections linking renewable energy generated in remote places, such as wind farms located kilometers offshore, to the grid.
From a demand-side perspective, much more electrification will also be required in areas that have so far been low load regions – away from densely populated cities where demand is already high. For example, through electrification it will become easier to locate a growing number of data centers in secluded areas. And we can expect to see more industrial sites (e.g. steel plants and mining operations) turn to electrification to convert away from carbon-intensive processes whilst increasing efficiency.
Over the next thirty years, we are likely to see power systems also growing into geographical areas that, up to now, have rarely been taken into account in grid expansion planning.
Flexibility and the role of storage
The journey towards a carbon-neutral energy system is dependent upon extremely flexible power systems. They will need to cope with increased complexity, brought about by the need to integrate bulk and distributed variable power generated from renewable sources.
Whenever grid flexibility is required, the first and most proven technical solution is grid expansion and interconnection. Once this reaches its limit, energy storage starts to play an important role on the pathway towards a carbon-neutral energy system. Battery storage for electricity has already made impressive strides over the past years. With the rise of variable renewable power production comes a greater need for short-term electricity storage to ensure reliability of the power system. Battery technology is becoming the dominant solution for meeting short-term needs offering huge flexibility and the most attractive cost-benefit ratio.
The buffers used in today’s energy system to deal with the variations of electricity production are, next to renewable hydro-electric power, mainly fossil-based energy carriers such as oil, gas and coal. These types of emission-intensive elements of the energy system will need to be phased out in a carbon-neutral world fit for the future.
An important aspect that decision-makers should consider is not to overly rely upon one direction only. Power system expansion and interconnection offers opportunities to link time zones and even climatic zones instantaneously. Nevertheless, the future energy system needs both interconnections and energy storage. It should never be a question of building one or the other – because they are complementary.
Trust, collaboration and the right investments
Time is of the essence in the move towards a carbon-neutral energy system. There have been several welcome policy announcements and initiatives of late, setting ambitious targets for a carbon-neutral future. This includes the stimulus initiatives and goals to accelerate the European Union’s Green Deal, goals put forward by countries such as the UK, Japan, China and South Korea.
While this is laudable, it is imperative that planning and execution cycles are accelerated to unlock the necessary investments in our energy infrastructure. Policymakers need to set a clear agenda and enable this to happen, which includes putting in place the right regulatory framework and ensuring a degree of collaboration in key areas such as grid codes and market mechanisms. The area of interconnected electricity networks is also becoming increasingly important in order to maximize the penetration of renewables. Both collaboration and innovation are important success factors.
We are solving a fundamental societal problem – bringing affordable, reliable and sustainable energy to all people
Be it offshore winds powering electric vehicles to desert-harvested solar power feeding air conditioning systems, a carbon-neutral energy system will reshape the world.
The challenge is so big that there is no room for picking winners – we need all sustainable solutions, current and future. We should not waste our energy and time on arguing about which is the better option, but instead focus on building sustainable partnerships, because only then will we accelerate and make an impact.
Building a global, interconnected and truly sustainable energy system for today’s and future generations with the help of fascinating technologies will bring unbelievable value for sustainable societies. This is what makes me proud and excited to be part of bringing such a vision to fruition.