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Five Things the Energy Transition Can’t Do Without

  • 2023-06-20

The energy transition, a global transformation of energy systems away from fossil fuels to renewable and clean energy sources by 2050, is necessary to ward off the worst impacts of climate change. It will entail overhauling our energy resources, systems, economics, policies, and our behavior also require a huge expansion of renewable energy sources, the phase out of coal and oil, and increased energy efficiency across the board, which can not be easy. Below are five factors that will be crucial in order to decarbonize our society.

Money

A decarbonized energy network requires a much greater investment in minerals, metals, and construction materials to produce the same amount of energy as a fossil fuel system, with the money invested up front. Consequently, achieving net-zero by 2050 will entail “the largest reallocation of capital in history” according to the global investment bank RBC Capital Markets.

Estimates for the energy transition’s cost by 2050 range from $125 trillion to $173 trillion, varying due to the inclusion of different factors. However, it is important to note that the fossil fuel industry received substantial support in 2020 alone, with $5.9 trillion spent on subsidies, tax breaks, and the unaccounted-for health and environmental damages caused by the industry’s impacts. Ending this support and shifting it to clean energy could help fund the necessary investments. And upfront expenditures for the transition would ultimately result in long-term savings for the world due to less fuel consumption, improved material and energy efficiency, lower maintenance costs, and the avoided damages from climate change impacts.

Continued research and development into new technologies, long-term battery storage, better insulation materials, and advanced nuclear energy will require investment money. Developing green fuels and green hydrogen for difficult-to-decarbonize sectors, such as aviation, shipping, long-distance trucking, and concrete and steel manufacturing, necessitates investments. These sectors rely on intense heat or fuels with high energy density, making it crucial to channel funds into the research and development of sustainable alternatives. To produce green ammonia, which is crucial for the production of ammonia-based fertilizer, the use of green hydrogen is necessary. Currently, the production of ammonia-based fertilizer involves methane and contributes to 1.8 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Decarbonizing and upgrading the electrical grid and building out global supply chains to support and distribute the expansion of renewables will also require capital.

Minerals and Materials

Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy will create a huge demand for minerals and materials. Generating one terawatt-hour of electricity from wind and solar will require 200 percent and 300 percent more metals, respectively, than generating the same amount of electricity from a gas-fired power plant.

To limit warming to 2°C by 2050, the World Bank projected that humanity will require more than three billion tons of minerals. To meet the demand for minerals such as lithium, graphite, and cobalt, which are used for energy storage in electric vehicle batteries and grid-scale storage, a 500 percent increase in demand is anticipated compared to current levels. Nickel is used in batteries too, as well as in hydrogen production and geothermal power. Geothermal power also requires chromium, molybdenum, and titanium. Wind turbines need iron ore, aluminum, and rare earth metals such as neodymium, terbium, and dysprosium for their magnets. The production of solar panels involves the use of silicon, silver, and zinc. Charging stations, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles require significant amounts of copper in their production. Expanding the electricity grid necessitates the use of copper and aluminum for wires and cables.

There are strategies that could lessen the demand for minerals, such as redesigning products to be more efficient or to rely less on critical materials, making materials more efficient, using substitute minerals, expanding the recycling and reuse of resources, and improving the maintenance of assets to extend their life. The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment has resources to enable the sustainable development of such resources while causing the least economic, social, and environmental harm.

Land

Large solar and wind farms need 10 times as much space per unit of energy as coal or natural gas power plants. For example, replacing a one-gigawatt gas plant with a one-gigawatt solar farm would increase land use from 350 to 40,000 acres. Wind turbines, often spaced a half mile apart, could require 30,000 to 250,000 acres to produce one gigawatt of electricity, depending on the landscape and other factors.

Finding enough land for renewable energy in a crowded world is a problem. In Germany, only 51 percent of the land is suitable for wind energy, but of this, only 9 percent is available due to regulatory, environmental, and technical issues. Half of France’s land cannot be used for wind energy because it is protected, near a military site, or along a flight path. In Asia, large-scale solar farms and hydroelectric projects threaten to encroach upon existing farmland that communities depend on.

The utilization of many of the best sites for renewable energy is already underway. And suitable sites that remain are going up in price as cities expand and real estate companies search for property to develop. In Germany and the U.S., land values rose almost 10 percent each year between 2011 and 2020.

Water

Currently, 10 percent of the freshwater on Earth is used in energy production, but demand for it could grow to 60 percent by 2040, since many clean energy resources require a great deal of water. By 2040, as climate change leads to warmer temperatures and increased drought, it is expected that 33 countries will face extremely high water stress.

Solar power plants are usually located in dry and sunny regions, but they often need water for cooling and cleaning their mirrors. One study found that 42 percent of the locations that currently produce solar energy will face a water deficit by 2040.

Capturing carbon from smokestacks and storing it underground, which the IPCC deems critical to achieving decarbonization, almost doubles the amount of water a power plant uses per kilowatt of electricity generated. To capture emissions, we need additional energy, requiring the use of additional water to cool the equipment.

Labor

  1. Energy jobs to rise from 58M in 2017 to 100M in 2050 (IRENA).
  2. Green skilled jobs grew 8% annually, but labor pool only 6%.
  3. Need 77K more offshore wind workers by 2024 (global demand).
  4. Limited qualified offshore wind project directors (only 46 worldwide).

The energy transition offers an opportunity to retrain fossil fuel workers and transition them to green jobs; but there will still likely be a skills shortage. To address it, governments and businesses need to invest in training and skills programs. The EPA has information about how to access and train for green jobs. For future workers, schools need to lay the groundwork with STEM education. The United Nations Environment Program has put out a report to help young people develop the skills for green jobs.

The energy transition is a global endeavor

Each country is going to have its own challenges in the energy transition. “Developed countries may have improved access to finance and availability of skilled labor, but lack mineral resources,” said Brauch. “In turn, many resource-rich developing countries need improved access to low-cost and long-term finance, as well as support to train and upskill their workforce.” For this and many other reasons, the global energy transition will require international cooperation. This should include sharing of information and opportunities for energy investments, developing and sharing technologies, and implementing financial commitments and mechanisms that ensure all countries have the resources to invest in the energy transition.

“Even though a just energy transition to a global net-zero carbon energy system will be resource-intensive,” said Brauch, “it is not only necessary to achieve global climate and energy goals, but also doable if the right conditions are in place.”

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