Global Energy Transitions - Rational and innovative solutions

By Jerome De Vera

Jerome represented the University of South Australia at the Y20 Summit in China.

Abstract

Each of the G20 countries has the responsibility to respond to the climate change crisis and the global energy demand by developing their respective energy industries. Utilising effective transitions in global energy use to help solve these key issues requires technological ingenuity, government compliance, economic viability and public acceptance. The signing of Paris agreement led to many countries pledging to achieve their climate goals in which the energy industry will be front and centre. This paper will explore and address the challenges and opportunities held by the global energy industry to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and keep lights up in our homes.  The following research will use sources such as scientific papers and policy documents from federal governments and internationally renowned organisations. The findings of this research is expected. Through this paper I hope to highlight the key developments and structural reforms needed to successfully attain these energy objectives.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Create national legislations and policy reforms that would allow smart and environmentally-friendly technologies and infrastructures to become socially and economically viable.
  2. High research and development (R&D) investments on smart energy technologies to accelerate the transition to intelligent and energy-efficient infrastructures.
  3. A review and reporting system must be developed to assess the state’s energy policies and to ensure their compliance with their emissions reduction targets based on the Paris agreement.

Introduction

As the Group of 20 (G20) represents about 80%[1] of the world’s energy related CO2 emission (CO2e), they have a huge responsibility in achieving our climate goals through energy transition. One climate goal set by the Paris Agreement is to maintain the global average temperature below 2°C of the industrial levels.[2] With 175 parties signing the treaty at the New York Opening ceremony on 22 April 2016[3], the G20 nations are expected to become a role model in fulfilling early actions in their respective government to reach their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). With the international recognition of the climate change agenda, a global transition in energy will be the major driver for change.

Background

Around the world, there is an urgent need to reduce the harmful effects of climate change and to accommodate the needs of our world’s growing population. With this, electricity generation comes into play as being a key contributor of GHG emissions and an essential utility for billions of people around the world. While trying to reduce CO2e from our electricity production, a concurrent problem arises regarding energy security from the increasing global energy consumption. Power accessibility is also another issue in some third world countries with many still having to rely to on candles to light their homes and firewood to cook their food.[4]

The way we utilise the world’s energy must be transformed in a global scale to profoundly see the improvements to our climate. Hauf J. et.al (2014) defined energy transitions as “a fundamental structural change in the energy sector of a certain country, like the increasing share of renewable energies and the promotion of energy efficiency combined with phasing out fossil energies”.[5] World leaders must take advantage of these innovative developments in energy systems to start the creation of new generation of smart and sustainable societies.

The Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates shows us in figure 1 below[6] the main variables in CO2 emissions. It basically states that the

Total amount of CO2 = People × Service per person × Energy per service × CO2 emissions per unit of energy.

Essentially, it demonstrates that the population and services will be increasing with time and that the last two variables are the ones subject to decline. Energy per service can be greatly minimized through the increase of efficiency and the CO2 emissions per unit of energy can be reduced in changes in our electricity energy uses.  These two subjects will be the main agenda of the Global Energy Transition: energy efficiency and low-carbon energy sources.

Figure 1: CO2 equation demonstrating the underlying factors [6]

Figure 1: CO2 equation demonstrating the underlying factors [6]

Australia’s Fossil Fuel Reliance and other G20 Countries

Latest data from Department of Environment shows that electricity generation accounts for 33% of Australia’s GHG emissions and to reduce this level is an enormous challenge as fossil fuels constitutes about 87% of the electricity generation.[7] Presently, Australia along with many developed countries will be racing to reach their carbon emissions target to cap the global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial average2. Under the Paris agreement, Australia has pledged to “implement an economy-wide target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030”[8].

Rational City Development for the Future

Currently more than 60% of world’s CO2e come from cities and it is expected that around two thirds of the world’s population will be living in the cities by the year 2050[9].

Emerging mega cities populated with tens of millions of people (like New York or Beijing) will require continuous supply of electricity due to a big growing demand. This increasing demand cannot be fully accommodated by solar and wind due to urban land restrictions and intermittent energy output. Thus if we want to move on from fossil fuels, the current viable and low emission options are clean baseload power stations such as hydro, geothermal or nuclear to power up big businesses, residential buildings and future electric transportations such as trains, buses and cars. Along with the integration of new intelligent and energy efficient technologies, many of these power hungry cities will greatly reduce their CO2e.

Electrification of the transport system is key to further reduce CO2 emissions. In addition, the idea of full electrification of transportation system must be started. Latest data shows that transportation accounts more than 20% of the world’s CO2e[10] and therefore electrical cars, solar-powered buses, high speed electric trains and maybe even electric aircrafts must be part of the solution. Although this is a long-term goal, the reduction on GHG will be greatly realized and gets our closer to our goal.

Cleaner deployment solutions for Electricity Generation

The CO2e per unit of energy generated from power plants must be greatly reduced to almost zero through the use of low carbon solutions. Currently, three major solutions exist that can be highly adapted by the G20 countries. Although these methods are not all perfect, they have the potential to be part of our global energy solution and meet the climate change targets.

1. Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS)

CCS is a method of capturing the CO2e from coal power plants by changing the gas to liquid form which will then undergo long-term storage underground. According to American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), over 5.5 million premature deaths in 2013 have been caused by air pollution with more than half of them coming from China and India.[11] Due to the fossil fuel dominance, this potential solution could act as a ‘cure’ to remove the CO2e from these polluting power plants.  Several countries around the world have taken this on and have developed small scale technologies however it does come with disadvantages. Some downside of this solution is its high costs, location and long term storage of the liquefied CO2 which is in a far larger scale that nuclear waste. The attention to using CCS is a rather rational approach considering that the coal power plants provides over 40% of the world’s electricity needs.[12] Advancement in this technology will see great reduction in our CO2e which can definitely contribute to the G20 emission reduction targets.

2. Renewable Energy: Solar, Wind and Biomass

The renewable energy has had massive expansion and is taking on the power industry as the central driver for cleaner energy. In comparison to the last decades, there has been increasing investments into solar thermal plants, wind turbines, biomass power plants and solar PVs in order to reduce the dependencies in fossil fuel energies. ­­­In addition, falling costs of renewable energy infrastructures and materials have caused for its rapid deployment around the world. Another advantage of renewable energy is that its capacity to be manufactured in small-scale which makes it portable and affordable. As a result, poor rural areas are able to get access to electricity using small solar panels turbines to light up their homes which are highly viable in remote areas and places that receives a lot of annual sunlight. However the practicality of large scale renewable deployment still comes across a few challenges on its way, such as reliability of supply (energy storage problem) and extensive land use.

3. Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power was at the peak of its prime during the 1980’s until the disasters of Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island. Furthermore, with the Fukushima Power Plant in Japan in 2011, some countries like Germany have decided to shut down their own reactors and much fears were embedded to public. Consequently before building nuclear power plants, issues regarding safety, proliferation and radioactive waste must be fully addressed in order for it to be accepted by the communities. On the other hand, nuclear power generation actually provides for more than 30% of the CO2e-free electricity generated worldwide12 which prevents about 2.5 billion metric tonnes of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere every year[xiii]. Additionally, more than 60 nuclear power stations are under-construction today and hundreds more planned within the next few years[14] coming from many countries particularly from the G20.

Policy Recommendations: Initiating Change for the Future

Recommendation One

In the coming years, an effective G20 energy transition will highly rely on new innovative developments and deployments in energy efficient and low-carbon technologies. Members of the G20 have the capabilities to create a sustainable conditions for these deployment through the implementation of energy policies. G20 has conducted many discussions and plans in creating national policies for energy transition in accordance to INDCs, although many of these are yet to be implemented in their respective governments.

Australia has had a wide range of government initiatives in improving the energy efficiency in the industry, households and businesses through financial incentives (tax reductions on business investments in energy efficient technologies), national building regulations, energy rating schemes and phasing out old lighting devices[15]. Furthermore, some key actions deliberated at the 2014 G20 Summit must be retold and its implementation reinforced such as energy efficiencies advances in vehicles, telecommunication networks, buildings, industrial plants and electricity generation1.

Another agenda that must start now is the introduction of electric cars. Policies and reforms must be accomplished to create market conditions where they are economically viable and affordable for average household to purchase. A range of policies could also make way for renewable energy, nuclear energy and CCS.

Recommendation Two

To increase the effectiveness of CO2e reduction policies recommended above, the technologies used must be at its best. Thus, higher government investments into R&D must be done to invent the future technologies. These investments should be allocated as financial assistance to university researchers, private organizations, industry and entrepreneurial ventures aiming to create and develop advance low-carbon technologies.

For example, research into energy storage technologies is an essential push to eliminate the problem of intermittency for renewable energies such as wind and solar. New innovation into low-carbon electricity generation sources are also coming out of the market such as wave energy, nuclear power with minimal-waste (Terrapower, Fusion, etc.) and advance CCS systems. Furthermore, R&D in low carbon vehicles must also be in the agenda, and thus the electrification of transportation in G20 countries will be one of the massive transitions that will inevitably assist in our low carbon future.

Recommendation Three

For easier monitoring of national progress, the -2°C below target from the Paris Agreement should be translated to GHG emissions targets for all party and state signatories in accordance to their INDCs. In this way, they are able to take a foreseeable value in which they need to reach by 2030. Assuming full conformity with the INDCs, we are able to form a prediction if we are able to commit to the goal of the Paris Agreement.

The Article 14 of Paris Treaty requires party signatories to give out a global stocktake every 5 years after the signing. The global stocktake is the assessment of the nation’s progress in achieving their INDCs towards the Paris goals. An evaluation report of the global stocktake should reveal countries who has inconsistencies with their earlier commitments and ensure that those discrepancies be carried on to the succeeding five years. Article 15 also involves a mechanism in which a chosen committee will review the compliance. Although the non-conformity of INDCs does not result to any punitive actions, it does however get released through the media.

Conclusion

Global transition of energy uses in accordance to Paris Agreement must take into account government capabilities, public acceptance, economic viability and factual scientific backgrounds. There is no single solution into this transformation, but only an array of ideas and innovation that needs to be implemented in order to see real results. With more energy developments, challenges and limitations that will be revealed, it is only through international cooperation that we can overcome the difficulties of low-carbon transition. The speed and effectiveness of the energy transition solely relies on the government actions to fulfil their commitments in the Paris Agreement.

Reference List

[1] G20 Australia (2014) G20 Energy Efficiency Action Plan: Voluntary Collaboration on Energy Efficiency [Report] pp2,3, Retrieved from http://www.g20australia.org/official_resources/g20_energy_efficiency_action_plan

[2] UNFCCC secretariat (2015). Conference of Parties – Adoption of the Paris Agreement [pdf] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [p22,29]. Retrieved from www.unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf       

[3] United Nations Treaty Collection (2016). 7.d Paris Agreement, CHAPTER XXVII ENVIRONMENT[Web] Retrieved fromhttps://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XXVII-7-d&chapter=27&lang=en

[4] Tessa Lee (2015). Light at the end of the tunnel? Overcoming Africa’s rural energy challenge. The Tony Blair Governance Initiative. Retrieved from http://www.africagovernance.org/article/light-end-tunnel-overcoming-africa%E2%80%99s-rural-energy-challenge

[5] Hauff, J., Neumann, D., Haslauer, F., & Bode, A. (2014). Global Energy Transitions - A comparative analysis of key countries and implications for the international energy debate (pp. 2-3). World Energy Council and A.T. Kearney. Retrieved from https://www.atkearney.com/utilities/global-energy-transitions

[6] Gates, B. (2016). Innovating to zero!. Ted.com. [Video] Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates?language=

[7] Department of Environment (2016). Quarterly Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory: September 2015 - Australia’s National Greenhouse Accounts, (p8) Retrieved from http://www.environment.gov.au/climate-change/greenhouse-gas-measurement/publications

[8] Australian Government (2015). Australia’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to a new Climate Change Agreement. Submission to UNFCCC [pdf] Retrieved from http://dfat.gov.au/international-relations/themes/climate-change/submissions/Pages/australias-intended-nationally-determined-contribution-to-a-new-climate-change-agreement-august-2015.aspx

[9] Busch, R. (2016) "This Is How Cities Can Fight Climate Change". World Economic Forum. [Web] Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/04/this-is-how-cities-can-fight-climate-change

[10] World Bank – Development Data Group (2015). World Development Indicators 2015. Carbon dioxide emissions per sector Retrieved from http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/3.10#

[11] Yuhas, A. (2016). Scientists: air pollution led to more than 5.5 million premature deaths in 2013. The Guardian. [Web] Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/12/air-pollution-deaths-india-china

[12] International Energy Agency (2015). Key World Energy Statistics 2015.[pdf] p25 Retrieved from https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/key-world-energy-statistics-2015.html

[13] Nuclear Energy Institute. (2016). Environment: Emissions Prevented. [Web] Retrieved from http://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/Nuclear-Statistics/Environment-Emissions-Prevented

[14] World Nuclear Association. (2016). Plans for New Nuclear Reactors Worldwide. World-nuclear.org.[Web] Retrieved from http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/plans-for-new-reactors-worldwide.aspx

[15] International Energy Agency (2011) G-20 Clean Energy, and Energy Efficiency Deployment and Policy Progress [Paper] Retrieved from https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/g20-clean-energy-and-energy-efficiency-deployment-and-policy-progress.html