There’s a big wave coming, better know how to ride it

Jeremy Cresswell
Jeremy Cresswell
Jeremy Cresswell
Opinion by Jeremy Cresswell

To curb greenhouse gas emissions, nations, states, and major conurbations/cities should aim for a mix of fuel-saving, plus flexible and highly reliable sources of energy.

And that sustainable energy equation of the future should embrace nuclear, claim various ‘cerebrals’ at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

If nuclear is excluded, the cost of generating electricity would “escalate dramatically” they argue.

But, as usual, I suspect the real trans-generational cost of nuclear will almost certainly not have been factored into their thinking.

I am referring to the ad-infinitum decommissioning cost of life-expired plants and servicing of nuclear waste stores. Why not? Because no one has come up with an even vaguely credible way of costing that always concealed dimension of nuclear.

However, the MIT guys are right to believe that power generation in particular is a prime candidate for “deep decarbonisation”.

They also say that burning natural gas to generate electricity has a valid place in the decades ahead, despite the carbon emissions penalty and utter waste of a high-grade but finite source of energy.

With global electricity consumption on track to grow 45% by 2040 the challenge is immense; but so too are the opportunities to get this somewhere near right.

Costs have fallen dramatically for wind and solar technologies, including managing their intermittency, storage batteries, too.

Battery prices for example have halved over the past three years and the growing deployment of smart grids makes it easier to manage and optimise use of multiple intermittent and baseline sources in the power grid, in particular via demand response.

It appears to be reasonably agreed that, by 2035, running a predominantly intermittent-renewables-based power system is likely to be cost-competitive with running a gas-based power network in most places, thanks to the combination of decreasing renewable generation costs and falling flexibility costs.

The good folk at MIT argue that, across a wide range of scenarios and locations, pairing intermittent generation sources with steady carbon-free resources that can be counted on to meet demand in all seasons and over long periods — such as nuclear, geothermal, bioenergy, and natural gas with carbon capture — would be less costly and pose a lower-risk route to a carbon-free grid. They fail to mention hydrogen, at least in the headline documentation released.

Europe broadly leads the way in the migration towards a more sustainable approach to energy usage, with Sweden for example declaring in 2015 that it intended to fully decarbonise by around 2050; preceded much earlier with electricity generation.

Meanwhile, in the US and despite President Donald Trump’s antipathy towards low carbon energy, in August, California committed to creating a 100% carbon-free electricity grid.

The bill, authored by outgoing state senator Kevin de Leon, raises California’s renewable energy target to 60% by 2030 with interim targets, and gives the state until 2045 to generate the rest of its electricity from carbon free sources.

This is distinct from similar legislation passed in Hawaii, which requires 100% renewable energy-based power generation by 2045.

California is hugely significant as it has a population of some 40 million and is hugely wealthy.

However, as MIT’s researchers and many other advocates of zero carbon power generation claim, getting to zero emissions has to be done at a low enough cost such that electricity is an attractive substitute for oil, natural gas, and coal in the transportation, heat, and industrial sectors, where decarbonisation is regarded as even more challenging.

But to attempt deep decarbonisation without factoring the use of hydrocarbons into the transition equation may turn out to be far more expensive than necessary.

As all of us struggle to understand, let alone come to terms with the great energy transition, there is one aspect that is surely blindingly obvious to all and that is the thermal efficiency of buildings, from the Arctic to the Tropics. Related are the efficiencies of transport and industrial processes.

Under the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario, which is consistent with a below 2degC pathway, energy efficiency measures account for 44% of the CO2 emissions reductions in 2040 relative to the baseline, which is a greater share than renewable energy (36%).

It has been calculated that, without efforts to use energy more efficiently in buildings, transport, and industry, continued population growth and economic development is expected to lead to a 60% increase in energy demand by 2050.

However, it is imperative that policy action is as ambitious and perhaps even more-so for energy productivity as it is for renewable energy.

Various studies agree on this though they may argue the detail.

Globally, buildings represent 30% of final energy consumption, second only to industry, where significant energy savings can be achieved through the deployment of best
available technologies across small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in multiple industrial sectors.

Space heating and cooling accounts for 40% of buildings’ energy consumption, and efficiency gains combined with decarbonisation of these services will be essential. In short, improving the energy efficiency of buildings reduces costs at every stage of energy production, including the need for new energy infrastructure itself.

Energy-efficient homes and workplaces are also cleaner and cheaper to run.

One of the issues that dogs the carbon debate constantly is the quality of the modelling carried out to arrive at the various conclusions, recommendations and so-forth.

Whose modelling do we believe? Is it objective? Is there a hidden political or corporate agenda?

This is a serious issue and it is clearly recognised by the research team behind a new study by the so-called Global Commission for the Economy and Climate (GCEC). It was set up in 2013 to help the international community achieve its development goals within the constraints imposed by climate change. Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Norway, South Korea, Sweden and the UK are current funders.

GCEC’s researchers are direct: “Current economic models are deeply inadequate in capturing the opportunities of such a transformational shift, or the grave dangers of climate inaction.

“We need a new class of economic models that can capture the powerful dynamics at play, including transformative technological advances, preservation of essential natural capital, and the full health benefits of cleaner air and a safer climate, including the containment of pandemic diseases.”

So there you have it. Who do you believe?

Meanwhile, the sand in the hour-glass runs and we know roughly what needs to be done.

Accomplishing the energy transition now clearly under way is utterly fundamental as an underpinning to everything else.