Now that several major economies have pledged to decarbonise entirely by mid-century, the time has come to figure out how to accomplish it. Amid the monumentally complex rethink and reshape of our planetary energy supply, one simple thing can be pointed out: it is mostly about electrons displacing fossil fuels.
Electrification can, in theory, supply all the energy demand for road transport and heating. If we add so-called green hydrogen (produced via clean-energy powered electrolysis) to fuel intensive tasks such as steelmaking and long-distance shipping, electricity could eventually provide up to 80 per cent of final energy demand. To do so, it will need to rise from today’s 27,000 terawatt hours to as much as 130,000 in just 30 years, while being 100 per cent renewable at the same time.
These figures are estimates made by the Energy Transition Commission (ETC), a think-tank committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. ‘Wind and solar only account for 10 per cent of electricity generation. They will need to grow to around 40 per cent by 2030 and over 75 per cent by 2050,’ reads its latest report. Is that even possible?
‘All developed economies,’ the report continues ‘should achieve near total electricity decarbonisation by mid-2030s, eliminating coal use almost immediately and with clear plans to phase out unabated gas.’ What is remarkable, is that the ETC’s ’commissioners’ include Shell’s CEO, BP’s chief economist, many top executives from energy-intensive sectors, plus environmentalists and scholars such as Sir Nicholas Stern. If all ETC participants are really ready to say adieu to coal and to slowly start abandoning gas and oil, decarbonisation by 2050 will indeed be possible.
Solar provides a good example of what can be achieved. In 2000, it was wrongly predicted that a mere 18 gigawatts of installed solar power would exist by 2020 – the real figure is more than 600 gigawatts. Photovoltaics, or the technology to convert photons into electrons, is already cheaper than fossil-fuelled generation. It is also an example of how much more we can do. A recent paper published by the scientific journal Joule argues that climate reports continue to underestimate the role of solar and that the price will keep on falling. Maintaining the current annual growth of 50 per cent for nine additional years would mean producing over 34,000 TWh (more energy than we consume today) just from solar.
It could be an electrifying future.