How to accomplish the energy transition

    The International Energy Association’s (IEA) latest publication, “Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) 2020”, is a 400-page report on energy technologies, the transition to net-zero emissions, and international climate goals. Here, we will break it down to the most essential information, saving you the time of reading the entire report.  

    CO2 emissions are set to fall in 2020 due to the global pandemic and the temporary shutdown of factories, the reduction of fuel use in the transportation sector and lower demand for energy. But this decrease in emissions cannot be taken as a new trendline. Most likely, total emissions will rise again in 2021, as well as in the years after that. It is projected that the global energy consumption will increase by around 50% between 2018 and 2050.  

    A transformation is required in the way we produce, supply, transform, and consume energy. Apart from a shift in mindset regarding energy utilization, a much faster deployment of existing technologies like wind and solar PV, as well as early stage technologies like hydrogen and carbon capture tools, is essential for the world to stand a chance against climate change.  

    By looking at the distribution across sectors (and in contrast to the general perception), the power sector accounts for only roughly one-third of global emissions. Industry, transport and the building sector account for more than 55%. To effectively build a bridge between the power sector and industries where direct use of electricity is challenging (for example, steel production from iron ore or the fueling of large ships), the use of hydrogen as a substitute for current fossil options could serve as a solution. However, today’s global capacity of hydrogen electrolysers, roughly 0.2 GW, would need to expand to 3,300 GW, to serve as such a bridge. These electrolysers would consume twice the amount of electricity that China generates today.  

    The essence of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) is undeniable, and has been for some time. Despite having been around for several decades, the technological advancement is still lacking and leaves the technology economically insufficient, for now. Chemical absorption and calcium looping are said to be the nearest to large-scale commercialization, although current plants are not achieving the necessary capture rates in order to be economically feasible. Large-scale demonstration plants are set to start operating within the next half decade in various places around the world.  

    The sustainable use of bioenergy is a promising way of substituting fossil fuels within the transport sector, or to offset emissions indirectly in combination with CCUS. Regardless, bioenergy must at least triple from today if it is to have the wished-for impact. Achieving this increase sustainably is yet another challenge on its own.  

    The private sector is indisputably vital to mobilize capital and drive innovation; all the same, without government help net-zero emissions will not be deliverable. With the economic stimulus packages following the COVID-19 crisis, governments are availing themselves of outstanding opportunities to take action to boost their economies while making sure clean energy and climate goals are at the center of these response measures. 

    The IEA sees the following five areas as the core of government support: (i) tackle emissions from existing assets; (ii) strengthen markets for technologies at an early stage of adoption; (iii) develop and upgrade infrastructure that enables technology deployment; (iv) boost support for research, development and demonstration; (v) expand international technology collaboration.  

    As end-use sectors accounted for 55% of energy and industry-related CO2 emissions in 2019, the IEA sees a need for faster progress if net-zero emissions are to be reached in this century. Greater deployment of commercial hydrogen production and more extensive use of CCUS is a first step toward these goals.  

    Unfortunately, the growth of global energy demand is currently outpacing the deployment of clean energy technologies. In other words, new clean energy installations are not capable of satisfying on their own the annual additional energy demand. This means renewable and clean energy sources need to be installed at a much faster pace than we see today.  

    Shifting away from a highly coal dependent energy production and toward gas and renewables has contributed to a slowed increase in CO2 emissions. This represents a slowed increase, however, not a decrease!  

    As seen in our EW-Factor calculations, coal is the most carbon-intense source of power production, and therefore inadequate for tackling climate change. Between 1990 and 2018, emissions of SO2 and NOX from coal-fired power plants have fallen 90% in the US. This has been another step, albeit a small one, in the right direction. 

    In addition to energy efficiency and renewables, the IEA identified four key technologies that need to be added to and are essential for reaching net-zero emissions, as they will account for about half of the cumulative emissions savings by 2070: (i) technologies to widely electrify end-use sectors (such as advanced batteries); (ii) carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS); (iii) hydrogen and hydrogen-related fuels; and (iv) bioenergy.  

    Let’s conclude the summary with words said by Dr. Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA: “ETP-2020 shows that we know what needs to be done to develop and deploy the technologies that can put emissions on a sustainable path.“ 

    Let’s build back better! 


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