Energy transition: a complex but necessary journey

By on 01/02/2022 | Updated on 02/03/2022

COP26 demonstrated the huge swathe of support at all levels for strong action on climate change. But recognition of the need to act is not the same as action itself, and the Glasgow discussions highlighted that the road to net zero will be fraught with many obstacles, both economic and behavioural.

Pre-positioning COP26, the 2021 IPPC’s 6th Assessment Report on Climate Change already hailed “code red for humanity”, stressing ‘irrefutable’ evidence of human influence irreversibly altering our planet, with global heating affecting every region on earth.

Governments, industry, businesses and communities alike need to collectively and in unison embrace change to achieve net zero and adapt to a resilient future. This is paramount to retaining a realistic chance of keeping the 1.5C target alive or at least being as close to it as possible.

A fundamental component in this jigsaw relates to how we generate, distribute and use energy. The swift removal of our reliance on unabated fossil fuels and a transition to green energy sources is urgently needed. This journey is not optional; it’s a harsh reality that is central to a wider economic problem at a national and global level.

Complex pathways

Achieving net zero will be complex, though it has to be that way. Our prosperity was of course simpler when much of our global economy was underpinned by extractive technologies. Carbon-based sources, obtainable with relative ease on an energy density scale, have provided an abundance (albeit not equally shared) of opportunity and growth. Relative low cost of extraction also edged out effective investment and innovation in alternative sources of energy.

However, the benefits of sourcing traditional energy sources are now on trial, given the motivational dial has changed:

  1. Cost. It is bad accounting to judge the merits of emerging energy technologies against a baseline predicated on the relatively free use of our biosphere as a trash can. We cannot ignore the cost to our world of the continued use of unabated carbon-high energy.
  2. Ease. Likewise, moving away from the current status-quo to a decarbonised world will not be simple. But as new technologies and their supply chains are increasingly accepted as the norm, the perception of ease will evolve.

In simple terms, we need to plan for higher energy costs and less easy pathways in the short to medium term.

Net zero accounting

We have abundant new technologies emerging and available. However, to ensure we take our planet to a better place, we need collective agreement on a robust net zero accounting model so that individual technologies or approaches are judged on a level playing field, using assumptions that are themselves based on peer-reviewed scientific outlooks.

Discarding inaccurate prejudices against given solutions and replacing them with balanced forward expectations is key, but in return we must be tenacious in demanding that each technology has full lifecycle and value chain accounting in relation to climate impact. What is the full end-to-end climate shadow of everything we do?

Hydrogen (H2)

Clearly on the ascendency, H2 may have a prime place in various settings and, as an end point combusted molecule, it is as climate friendly as it gets. However, H2 is generated in multiple ways; the end state does not account for how ‘climate friendly’ the primary energy source was to generate it, nor how that source could have been used in alternative ways for the same outcomes. Additionally, how H2 is stored, distributed and delivered must be considered.

Can it utilise existing infrastructure to bring to market more readily, or will its usage require new carbon intensive infrastructure that will delay rollout and impede net zero targets?

Progress with interim and alternative solutions

Our energy transition should also support pragmatic progression that may be imperfect and troubling for purists to accept, but nonetheless kickstarts the net zero journey more rapidly than waiting for more desirable solutions, such as wind and solar power.

The renewable energy share is growing and will eventually be deployed in sufficient volumes, alongside a range of storage solutions, to meet our energy needs. However, until then they need to be partnered with other technologies to support base requirements. This is a transition, not an on-off switch.

This means conventional carbon-based energy sources will continue to play a vital part for years to come, side-by-side with renewables growth to ensure we continue to access reliable electricity. Switching off these sources earlier than a progressive transition allows will delay us. We do however need protection mechanisms in place to ensure the rapid build-out of renewables continues and investment favours this. Policy, regulation and legislation play their part here.

Alternative energy technologies are rapidly accelerating in-step with increasing investment appetite and will likely lead to a much more complex energy mix. As a topical example, nuclear fusion is moving away from the forever future to near term proof of concept and presents an exciting potential source of virtually limitless clean energy.

No one-size-fits-all approach

We must also recognise that a given solution or energy mix may be absolutely right for certain settings but not for others. For example, the battery chemistry used for powering electric vehicles where size or weight are at a premium may not be an ideal solution for grid scale storage where these are significantly less important.

Equally, deploying carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) as abatement for gas fired power generation may only make sense where the gas supply/reserves and CO2 usage/sequestration choices are local and efficiently run with fugitive emissions under control.  We are seeing this play out already in the BEIS CCUS clustering approach.

Net zero – we have to accelerate now

Around two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to fossil fuel energy supply, so decarbonisation of the energy sector is a huge priority. By unlocking investment, we can capitalise in a non-prejudiced way on the abundant mature and emerging clean energy technologies in their most appropriate settings. These offer us hope that we can alter the course of our future.

The EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service has recently released its findings that globally the last seven years were the warmest on record by a clear marginGiven the stark evidence before us we must act fast to embrace change before the climate leaves us without options.

Author: Mike Theobald, Head of Energy Transition at WSP, one of the UK’s largest engineering professional services consultancies

To find out more about how WSP is helping clients and communities decarbonise, or to get in touch, please visit our Energy Transition webpage here.

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