Today’s global energy crisis is a source of pain for many: it strains personal wallets and contributes to surging inflation. But there’s a silver lining. It is also accelerating the global transition away from fossil fuels and toward a world powered largely by clean electricity from wind and solar.
The world is now moving more swiftly toward the UN goal of cutting CO2 emissions to zero by 2050, to mitigate against the worst effects of climate change, while also reducing reliance on imported energy. Governments and private companies are ramping up investment in wind, solar farms and other renewable energy. Between now and 2030, annual investment in clean energy worldwide will rise by at least 50% to more than $2trn, projects the International Energy Agency (IEA).
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There’s a catch, of course. To fully benefit from those investments, we must also seriously upgrade our power transmission infrastructure to form the backbone on which the global energy system will continue to be built.
The global energy system that is rapidly emerging will be much more diverse and complex than today’s, of course. By 2030, half of electricity could be generated by renewable sources led by wind and solar, up from 28% today. By 2050 they could account for 80% of all generation, says the IEA. But renewables plant output can vary dramatically, depending on wind speeds and hours of sunshine.
And power demand is going to surge as more EVs hit the road and heat pumps see widespread installation in cities and their suburbs, while use of air conditioners grows dramatically as global temperatures rise, with electricity by mid-century account for as much as half of all energy used globally, up from 20% now.
Patterns of consumption will change too, especially when millions are recharging their cars at night.
Failure to strengthen the grid to meet both this swelling demand and the needs for real-time flexibility to handle the variability of production from renewables and we could be in for a bumpy ride. In the past, utility companies often responded to spikes in demand by firing up fossil fuel plants.
Power grids will need to be twice as flexible by 2030 as they are today
Power grids will need to be twice as flexible by 2030 as they are today: by 2050 the world will need four times of the generation capacity and be able to transfer three times as much electricity.
So what will the grid of tomorrow need to look like? One, it will have greatly increased transmission capacity and interconnections combined with energy storage to improve flexibility; two, it will be run on next generation digitalization technology honed for sustainability and superior power electronics; three, it will operation globally with a “system-wide approach” to the energy transition that will enable innovative collaboration across industrie and sectors.
Most electricity grids were built to deliver power to homes and companies in a single country, or part of a country. While that worked well in the past, more intermittent electricity supply and demand increases the need for links to seamlessly carry power from where it is available to where it is needed, often over longer distances.
In 2021 several major power interconnectors came into service, including the record-setting 720km 1.4GW North Sea Link between Norway and the UK and the 623km NordLink between Norway and Germany, opening up further channels between these northern European countries to exchange wind, solar and hydro power. Many more of these types of interconnections will be needed to ensure reliable electricity supply in the future.
Because of the tremendous scale and complexity of energy systems, and the urgency to act – wind and solar plants and their transmission line can take as long as a decade to bring online – companies, academia and governments must collaborate in new ways to find innovative solutions now. That’s particularly true in industries where the barriers to using clean energy are high, such as aviation, cement manufacturing and steel making. Bringing together diverse know-how and technologies will increase the chances of cracking some of the toughest challenges.
A working group of the World Economic Forum (WEF) has created a system value framework built around diverse factors including energy security, job creation and water use, to hone in on how governments and industry can best address the opportunities and challenges of the energy transition in a holistic way beyond cost by evaluating economic, environmental, social and technological outcomes. Hence accelerating the energy transition and economic growth. The WEF aims to have more than 100 industrial clusters engaged on this initiative by 2024.
Shifting from a global energy system powered mostly by fossil fuels to a more sustainable one powered mainly by clean electricity is a massive undertaking. As this historic energy transition gathers momentum, and as we are advancing a sustainable energy future for all, we must take steps to ensure electricity grids are robust and flexible enough to continue reliably powering our lives and economies.
· Claudio Facchin is CEO of Hitachi Energy