The road to 2050 and net-zero carbon: optimism, but “not a one-trick pony”

The move to renewable energy is now unstoppable worldwide and electricity production can achieve a net-zero CO2 status by 2050. That net-zero goal, though, will require investments in nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, energy storage and transmission.

That’s the assessment from four electric utility leaders who participated in a panel discussion on Wednesday during Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Global Electrification Forum, which runs through April 23.

The panelists lead four of the largest international energy companies in the world: Andrés Gluski, President and CEO, AES (Global); Francesco Starace, CEO and General Manager, Enel Group (Italy); Ignacio Galán, Chairman and CEO, Iberdrola (Spain); and Mads Nipper, Group President and CEO, Ørsted (Denmark).

All but the Enel Group are active in U.S. markets. Orsted operates the Block Island offshore wind farm in Rhode Island and is the lead company in new offshore projects from Virginia to Connecticut. AES and Iberdrola are dominant players across U.S. markets, in solar, wind, and emerging storage technologies.

The panelists’ optimism draws on a number of factors working together, complementary developments that, for renewable energy, are delivering compounded, not singular, advances and benefits.

Technology is one factor. It expands continuously, delivering benefits drawn from diverse fields and applications. Digitalization and the internet-of-things, for example, are critical in every aspect of an energy project. Energy efficiencies constantly improve. Material science, noted Enel’s Starace, is making materials lighter, cheaper and tougher. “All of this,” he said, “impacts renewables for the better. These are not trends that end any time soon.” To the contrary, energy companies are counting on yet-unknown benefits from tech’s non-stop development.

Cost is another big driver. Gluski with AES noted that just 5 years ago most of his company’s generation was from coal. “Now, renewables are cheaper than fossil,” he said and AES’ goal is zero coal by 2030. Over the years, AES focused its in-house technical work to become leaders in battery storage and highly efficient solar panels, products and applications which they now sell market-wide. “The dollars made sense,” Gluski said, “and climate goals made it necessary. In the last five years we have retired 10 gigawatts of coal and added 10 gigawatts of renewables.”

Public support and demand are another pillar. Critically, the panelists noted, this support is evidenced in capital markets. Nipper with Orsted said “there is a lot of capital available, ready to be deployed.” Starace commented that “money is looking for sustainable development.”

“Some politicians disagree,” Gluski added, “but the (renewable energy) path is clear.”

Still, this was not a pollyannish assessment and discussion. Daunting challenges lie ahead. For one, compared to the world’s total energy demand, the amount of renewable energy produced today is tiny, and energy demand keeps growing, particularly, Starace noted, for electricity, growing at twice the rate of energy overall.

The pace of a renewable build out is another concern, “a difficult challenge,” said Iberdrola’s Galán. “It’s nice to have big plans,” he added, “but results emerge very slowly when permitting takes four to five years and construction takes another five.”

A sense of frustration was evident among all the panelists regarding permitting and related regulatory processes in both the U.S. and Europe. The panelists welcomed the new initiatives directed by President Joe Biden. Nipper said “my least concern is about the technology and scale up. But the interface between developers and authorities is not good. Grid questions are critical, and we are glad to see this is being addressed. These are positive signs. But the climate won’t wait.”

The speakers referenced looming new technical and policy challenges to get to net-zero by 2050. They noted, for example, that public and political support will need to extend beyond just renewable energy generation. “This won’t be a one-trick pony event,” cautioned Gluski, referencing the critical contributions expected from new nuclear plants, carbon capture, energy storage, maybe hydrogen and, particularly, transmission – integration with existing systems and investments in major new facilities.

Project siting will face challenges. “Finding land for solar and wind will become increasingly difficult,” Gluski said, noting that “the bigger the project, the more opposition.”

Noted author and energy researcher Daniel Yergin was the keynote speaker prior to the panel discussion. He cited three factors pushing energy electrification. The first was policy and related climate issues. Second, the economics changed making renewables cheaper than competitive fuels. The third is still to play out: the impact of electric vehicles. “We’re on the road,” Yergin said, referencing the 2050 net-zero goal. “It won’t be smooth, there will be twists and turns.” But whatever route finally develops, he noted, electricity will be powering it.

Tom Ewing

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