Sixty per cent of the fossil fuels extracted is wasted. It’s time we make the transition to an all-electric renewable-based energy paradigm. Vincent Petit of Schneider Electric shares more.
8 August, 2018
Energy is at the heart of our civilisation. As far back in history as we can trace, major economic developments have emerged each time new sources of energy were discovered.
A few striking examples: the first industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century was propelled by steam and coal. The second industrial revolution at the dawn of the twentieth century saw the rise of electricity and oil. On both occasions, major opportunities arose to do things better and faster, and more importantly to do new things that were unimaginable before.
We live today in an energy system which was discovered during the second industrial revolution. This energy system consumes around 150,000TWh of energy yearly, with 80 per cent of it coming from fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal).
A century ago, this was 10 times less, an indication of the tremendous economic developments that this new energy system has enabled. Today, a large chunk (40 per cent) of this ‘primary’ energy is used to produce electricity, the rest being transformed and refined.
This energy system shows major limitations as the world’s development accelerates at an ever-faster pace. First, it is heavily carbonised. Today, energy represents around 80 per cent of the total CO2 emissions, an issue which has taken centre-stage in recent years. It also creates significant dependencies, as fossil fuel reserves are not equally distributed across the globe. Finally, it is massively inefficient.
Half of it being lost in the production of electricity, and another half from the actual use of these fuels in inefficient combustion engines or heating systems. These issues continue to create major imbalances and risks going forward. But, they also present a significant opportunity for change.
The solution to tackling these increasing challenges can be broken into two steps. First, decarbonise the power sector with renewable energies. Second, electrify massively the end-uses of energy.
There are several advantages to this new all-electric renewable-based energy paradigm:
In addition, electrification of end-use will enable migrating other traditional fossil-based energy uses to clean electricity.
Accessible “reserves” correspond to three times the total of fossil fuels retrievable on the planet… and they renew daily.
This is achievable through the combination of a power sector relying on renewable energies and electrification of major uses of alternative energies (transportation, heating, etc. – traditionally two to five times less efficient depending on the application)
That’s not all. The key underlying question is whether this transition will lead to a more economical energy system, which accelerates economic development to the next level.
Numerous studies have shown that the transition to a renewable-based energy system would not significantly increase the overall current capital expenses dedicated to energy. In addition, renewable-based electricity production has very low operating expenses (operation, maintenance and fuel costs), typically two to four times lower than traditional power technologies.
When traditional fossil-fuels based energy uses are electrified, the efficiency gain proves also to be net worth.
This new all-electric renewable-based energy paradigm therefore has the potential to make energy more accessible – fostering economic development, as well as new uses of energy which were unimaginable before. Let’s pick just one example – the accelerated development of digital technologies which are creating a new surge for energy demand.
Many large organisations in the world today are converging towards this probable future. BNEF has estimated that by 2040 50 per cent of global power capacity could already be of renewable sources, while electric vehicles (EVs) could represent over 50 per cent of total annual car sales.
The Energy Transition Commission has estimated that power decarbonisation combined with electrification could lead to a 25 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2040. Shell has recently presented a likely future (“Sky” scenario) where net CO2 emissions could be zeroed by 2070, with electricity (80 per cent renewable) to represent close to 60 per cent of the total energy mix (versus the 20 per cent today).
Many companies around the world have acknowledged this and are taking the necessary steps to be ahead on the curve. One example is Hewlett-Packard which chose Schneider Electric to help them reach their goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent from 2010 to 2020. HP now can power 100 per cent of its Texas-based data centre operations with renewable energy.
The future is thus undoubtedly electric. The transition to it remains, however, a key topic of our generation. Surprisingly enough, the greatest challenge is not so much about supply-side transformation, even though this is what most headlines today refer to.
Renewable energies are, by nature, distributed and mixed with local consumption. Electrification is significantly changing the way energy is used. This new all-electric renewable-based energy system is undergoing a ‘deep’ revolution on where and how energy is being consumed, and to which extent it can get self-powered locally.
Take the example of Fairfield, Connecticut. The town uses a microgrid with the ability to ‘island’ or disconnect itself from the central grid if utility power is lost in an emergency. This gives the coastal town 120 per cent of its peak demand power during an energy crisis or extreme weather event. Demand-side is the new frontier where the transition will accelerate or stumble.
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