The energy of the new technological cycle requires large-scale investments and decisive political action
Humanity is about to usher in a new technological cycle, which implies structural changes in the economic model and a fundamental revision of the strategy for managing the energy system. Experts of the VIII Global Energy Prize Summit taking place today, on April 10 at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany), are convinced that this transition requires large-scale investments and decisive political action. While discussing the changes of the global energy landscape, the Summit’s participants identified ways to improve energy efficiency and named obstacles preventing the necessary deep transformation.
“The demand for electricity will continue to grow, especially to support the economies of such countries as India and China, so it is imperative to develop carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies,” said Rodney John Allam, the 2012 Global Energy Prize laureate, Member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Currently existing technologies for clean power requiring carbon capture and storage increase the cost of electricity by about 60%. New low-cost power systems based on oxy-fuel supercritical CO₂ will be commercially available in the mid-2020s. The so-called "Allam cycle" provides an opportunity not only to produce energy without harmful atmospheric emissions, but also has the additional advantage of low cost for electricity generation (6 cents per kilowatt).
Sergey Alekseenko, the 2018 Global Energy Prize laureate, Head of the heat and mass transfer laboratory of the Institute for Thermophysics of the RAS Siberian Branch, underlined the importance of the development of environmentally friendly and efficient technologies to process fossil fuels. In particular, combined-cycle plants and advanced coal processing are the most important steps towards the decarbonization of energy. Although fossil fuels will remain a priority energy source for resource-rich countries Alekseenko stated the world energy mix will radically change due to the development of renewable energy sources (RES), which will start to dominate the global energy balance after 2050. Geothermal energy, and more specifically –petrothermal systems– ( based on hot dry rocks found from 3 to 10 km beneath the surface with temperatures up to 350°C) are the most promising procedures of generating alternative energy, Alekseenko highlighted. In contrast to the variability of sun and wind energy, “Petrothermal energy is on-demand and does not require any energy storage solutions. However, solar and wind energy will likely remain the predominant part of the global energy mix in the future. Therefore the development of renewable energy sources must be accompanied by the creation of efficient energy storage systems, ” the scientist mentioned.
Further elaborating on the imperative transition to renewable energy sources, Xiansheng Sun, Member of the Global Energy Prize International Award Committee and Secretary General of the International Energy Forum, stated that countries are trying to find an even balance between economic development and the solution of a variety of environmental issues. However, natural disasters caused by climate change are drivers that redirect counties’ development strategies. In pursuit of viable, sustainable energy markets, both corporations and developed countries are turning to new technologies, such as carbon capture, storage and utilization systems, big data analytics, automation, robotics, electric cars and smart grids.
Considering that smart grids improve efficiency as well as the sustainability of power generation and distribution, Rae Kwon Chung, Chairman of the Global Energy Prize International Award Committee, Adviser to the Chair, UN Secretary-General’s High-level Expert and Leaders Panel (HELP) on water and disasters, and Member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, added that smart grids are an excellent tool to foster intergovernmental cooperation. One of the methods is the use of ultrahigh-voltage direct current transmission lines (UHVDC), which will satisfy the growing electricity demand of remote regions. According to the expert, vast spaces of deserts and heath can be turned into production centers of renewable energy sources. This would allow the countries of regions like Central Asia to transfer electricity from alternative sources to megacities around the globe.
Renewable energy technologies should not only be used to achieve energy security and withstand global climate change, but also to improve the overall well-being of humanity, says Adnan Amin, Member of the Global Energy Prize International Award Committee, Director-General Emeritus of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). He cited more than 5 million premature deaths per year caused by air pollution. Increasing investment in alternative sources will have beneficial social and economic consequences, addressing the issue of energy poverty, creating new workplaces and improving social well-being.
Against the backdrop of the technological revolution, key players of the global energy system need to reconsider their strategic approach towards global energy challenges. Just the numerous problems of environmental pollution alone make a global energy transition mandatory. According to the Global Carbon Project, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion have grown by 2.7% in 2018 to a record 37.1 gigatons. Taking into consideration these facts, countries need to restructure their energy supply system based on new technologies to avoid environmental disaster.
Doubtless, such global transformation will require massive investments in the modernization of current systems, a radical growth of energy efficiency, a transition to a "low carbon" economy, and the development of new technologies. Key obstacles for the world community during the transition period include the low speed of innovation, the lack of a holistic view and the absence of an overarching plan of change. Major challenges can be found in the capital-intensive nature of the energy industry and maintaining a balance between security, sustainability, affordability and the systemic vulnerability of digital systems to cyber threats.
The massive costs of transitioning to sustainable sources is another key challenge. Producers are still sticking to their investment decisions in traditional fossil fuel assets. Thus, China has 259 Gw of new coal fired capacity under development right now, which is comparable to the entire existing US fleet of 266 Gw. In this case, according to the World Energy Outlook by the International Energy Agency (IEA), from 2018 to 2040, it will take from 60 to 68 trillion dollars to develop sustainable energy development scenarios. The situation is becoming complicated due to inability of governments in forming a foundation for “clean” energy development, as well as their unwillingness to impose CO2 emissions’ taxes and grant tax incentives for the efficient use of energy.
Participants of the Summit concluded that the main challenge for the development of energy in the new technological cycle lies in the hands of political decision makers. While the leading scientists in the field are confident that efficient, environmentally friendly and economically viable technologies are available to provide holistic solutions that were previously impossible, politicians are called upon to take the necessary hard decisions today.