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IEA’S Roadmap to 2050: Net Zero or Bust

The International Energy Agency (IEA) identified that the number of countries which have pledged to achieve net‐zero emissions has grown rapidly over the last year and now covers around 70 %of global emissions of CO2. However, the changes required to reach net‐zero emissions globally are poorly understood. As a result, IEA published its “Achieving Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector.” They identified that, despite all the hype, if all announced national net-zero pledges are achieved in full and on time, whether or not they are currently underpinned by specific policies, goal acquisition will still fall well short of what is necessary to reach global net‐zero emissions by 2050.

With that said, a practical roadmap to net zero is very ambitious. IEA believes success looks like electricity accounting for almost 50% of total energy consumption in 2050, with almost 90% of electricity generation coming from renewable sources, of which wind and solar PV together account for nearly 70%. This will mean that electricity system flexibility —needed to balance wind and solar with evolving demand patterns — quadruples by 2050 with major increases in all sources of flexibility: batteries, demand response and low‐carbon flexible power plants, supported by smarter and more digital electricity networks.

The IEA has identified interim achievements to ensure we’re on the right path to net zero by 2050. This includes the fall of global energy‐related and industrial process CO2 emissions by nearly 40% between 2020 and 2030. There will need to be a 75% reduction in methane emissions from fossil fuel use by 2030, while providing universal access to sustainable energy. The world economy in 2030 is some 40% larger than today but uses 7% less energy; around 55% of the cumulative emissions reductions in the pathway are linked to consumer choices such as purchasing an EV, retrofitting a house with energy efficient technologies or installing a heat pump.

As a result, IEA believes governments must lead the planning and incentivizing energy efficiency, fuel switching and massive infrastructure investments. This includes smart transmission and distribution grids, with annual investment expanding from $260B today to $820B in 2030. The roadmap shows pairing battery storage systems with solar PV and wind to improve power system flexibility, and maintaining electricity security becoming commonplace in the late 2020s. Here at Enbala, we are already seeing a lot of the world’s most progressive utilities starting to move the dial on their energy mix, using software solutions like our ConcertoÔ platform to replace retiring coal and gas plants with renewables, storage and demand flexibility.

The IEA sees EV ridership rising from around 1 million today to 40 million in 2030, requiring annual investment of almost $90B in 2030. EVs provide grid operators both a new challenge and an opportunity; annual battery production for EVs leaps from 160 GWh today to 6,600 GWh in 2030. Having the ability to consume excess renewable generation and provide additional peaking capacity through advances in V2G technology will make EVs essential grid resources.

The IEA roadmap will require immense investments and still has space for the adoption of new technologies. All this while the global economy is expected to double through to 2050, and the global population increases by 2 billion. I’ll say it again, it’s ambitious. The IEA suggests energy or environment ministries alone cannot carry out the policy actions needed to reach net zero by 2050; the successful roll out requires breaking down silos and integrating energy into discussions surrounding finance, labor, taxation, transport and industry. The commitment is there, but more needs to be done. It’s all about the follow through; the financial sector is contributing to the change through Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) investments, enterprise procurement processes devote a chunk of evaluation criteria towards a suppliers sustainability initiatives and goals. A potential dark side to the growth in battery storage and EVs involves the pollution and land degradation associated with mining of metals, manufacturing and disposal of these technologies. The most successful suppliers will be those with transparency and accountability across the lifecycle of the technology.

Our collective global community must stay accountable, improving and course-correcting at record speed. If I wasn’t witness to the COVID-19 pandemic these past 18 months, I wouldn’t think this kind of change was possible; bureaucracies work too slow for fast change. But the world stepped up — we made quick changes and some serious sacrifices, identifying tragic inequalities and broken systems along the way. We’re persevering, and the challenge of net zero by 2050 will only be achieved with this same agile, collective cooperation.

Climate — An Action Plan Optimized for Minimum Pain

Climate change is everyone’s problem, and careful thought and planning are needed to reduce fossil fuel emissions with minimal impact on our quality of life and cost of living.

We are inefficient in our use of energy. A few examples stand out. Overall, some 32% of the primary energy that we start with is used effectively. Automobiles powered by gasoline or diesel fuel are generally less than 25% efficient. Even new technology is not all that efficient. A solar panel that makes electricity is less than 25% efficient, while a solar collector that makes hot water may be more than 80% efficient. If the goal is to reduce fossil fuel that is used for heating, it is difficult to comprehend why anyone would make electricity to be used for heat at 25% efficiency when the solar hot water collector can do the same job and deliver almost four times the energy from a collector that is the same size.

We have reached a state where fast response to reduce emissions will be essential to meet the established targets, and if ever there was a need to seek the “low hanging fruit,” this is it.

For example, consider transportation. At a commercial level, we are beginning to see electric buses and trains. Automobiles are in the hands of individuals. An Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) powered car is about 20-25% efficient, while a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) is more than 70% efficient.

Supplying energy for a fleet that is converted to EVs may be a big challenge. Energy for transportation in the U.Ss supply of liquid petroleum is equal to almost three times the total generated electricity on the U.S. grid. Of the total petroleum liquids consumed, 75% is used for transportation, and the balance is used almost entirely by industry. Personal vehicles consume almost 60% of the total transportation portion, and they would use 133% of the TOTAL electricity generated in the U.S. if the efficiency was equal to BEVs. Fortunately, electric cars seem to use about 1/5 of the energy used by an ICE-powered car, so the increase in electricity use may be reasonable, provided it can be controlled to charge vehicles during off-peak periods when surplus capacity is available.

Most people driving battery electric vehicles are expected to charge their cars at home because the cost is less. These vehicles get most of their energy at night. Apartment buildings are installing systems that throttle the charge rate to share capacity among many vehicles. This will avoid or defer the need to upgrade the electric supply to the building, but it may limit the amount of charge any single vehicle will receive overnight. People returning from a long trip with a low battery may be encouraged to utilize a DC fast charger to charge the battery to a reasonable level and then plug it in when they get home.

However, the DC fast chargers that are appearing may become a problem if there are too many in use at any one time. Some of these will charge a car at up to 250 kW. When charging a car, one of these chargers could use as much power as 25 homes, all running clothes dryers and a stove at the same time.

There also appears to be interest in the application of hydrogen. Hydrogen can be made from surplus renewable electricity at about 75% efficiency, but there are significant added costs and energy needed for compression and storage. Hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars can provide transportation and have an advantage that they can travel longer distances than the BEV vehicles, but the efficiency is less than about 40%. However, a hydrogen-powered vehicle can charge rapidly at a charging station, and the hydrogen put into the vehicle can be made over a long period of low demand on the electric grid, so there may be some benefits to the use of hydrogen, albeit at a much higher cost per mile than the BEV.

We are facing unprecedented changes. The challenge and opportunity for users are to find a path that will use less energy and cost less while allowing us to maintain a high quality of life. On the other side, there are some real opportunities for companies that can provide demand management, as these changes will require smart systems that can provide electrical energy to charge cars or to make hydrogen without impairing the ability of the grid to meet the recognized needs of customers.

The conversion of our ground transportation systems may well become the critical factor in our objective of meeting lower emission targets.