It is happening. The grid’s decarbonisation is moving faster than many people realise. In May, for four consecutive days, Portugal was powered exclusively by solar, wind and hydro energy sources. A week later, clean energy supplied a record 87 per cent of Germany’s electricity demand. At the same time, Britain’s coal-fired electricity fell to zero for more than 12 hours for the first time in modern history – no minor accomplishment.
If Europe seems well on track to reach its baseline target of a 20 per cent share in renewable energy by 2020, the entire world needs to speed up clean power adoption, in order to meet its ultimate climatic goals. However, to reach and exceed the 30 per cent threshold in another decade, the missing link for clean power technologies must be filled in, namely storage.
If companies are to avoid paying customers for electricity consumption, any excess energy must be stored. If provided with powerful, inexpensive batteries to store electricity, households and small businesses could easily become energy independent. Technology is fast approaching that turning point. Elon Musk’s Tesla is expected to mass market its Powerwall next year, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for domestic use. According to Deutsche Bank, the cost of lithium-ion batteries could fall by 20 to 30 per cent per year, bringing commercial or utility-scale batteries to a mass adoption stage even before 2020. Navigant, a research firm, argues that electricity storage installed on the grid is likely to grow more than 60-fold ten years from now.
“It could be time to launch another scientific research project, this time on a planetary scale, for speeding up the evolution of energy generation and storage”
It is not the time to become complacent, for the road to a fossil-free economy is still long and steep. Yet, if we could leap over a technological generation or two and close the remaining missing links, the planet’s climatic equilibrium could indeed be spared. Time is ticking.
So, why not have ‘the most concentrated intellectual effort in history’? Infamously, such a moniker belongs to the Manhattan Project which, motivated by a sense of urgency, triggered nuclear ripples of fear. Seventy years on, it could be time to launch another scientific research project, this time on a planetary scale, for speeding up the evolution of energy generation and storage. The sense of urgency is still there. Ripples of hope are expected.
This was published in the July 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.