by A. Karim Ahmed
While leading industrial and developing nations are finally taking resolute steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, their current energy policies – still largely dependent on fossil fuels – are insufficient to avoid many dire consequences of climate change. Unless average global temperature is halted at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, most climate experts believe the world faces severe dislocation of our economies and our way of life. It is not entirely clear that this target can solely be achieved by putting in place a series of policy commitments made at the Paris Agreement meeting in December, 2015. In the present politically charged atmosphere, despite our best intentions to address climate change, the world faces a less than rosy future for those born and raised in the 21st century.
However, on the horizon a little noted revolution is taking place. This pertains to the extraordinary rise of renewables, whose growth is projected to accelerate exponentially in the next decade or two. This optimistic forecast was reached in a comprehensive report by a leading energy analysis group in Great Britain, who are well placed to carry out such an in-depth study. In addition, recent research and development in the field of electric battery and energy storage technology gives us even greater reason to hope for a cleaner and safer future. For someone who has long despaired about our society’s inability to tackle climate change, this is the first time I believe we may be truly turning the corner.
First, the comprehensive report on renewables. The report’s study was carried out at the Grantham Institute, affiliated with UK’s prestigious Imperial College, London, in collaboration with an independent think tank, the Carbon Tracker Initiative (Report: Expect the unexpected: The disruptive power of low-carbon technology, http://www.carbontracker.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Expect-the-Unexpected_CTI_Imperial.pdf). Based on their extensive analysis, they believe that global demand for fossil fuels – oil and coal – may peak as early as 2020 and start declining thereafter. This is an unprecedented finding, one that is at odds with in-house projections and trend analysis conducted by the fossil fuel industry. The report presumes that this economic transition would occur through a significant loss of non-renewable market share to solar photovoltaics (PVs) and electric vehicles (EVs) within a relatively short time frame.
What is even more remarkable is the projected rate of growth of renewables in general. It deviates markedly from other energy trend analysis for fossil fuels and renewables. Using the most updated data on technology costs and market trends in the renewable energy field, they arrive at the following startling conclusions:
- “Solar Photovoltaics (PVs). . . could supply 23% of global power generation in 2040 and 29% by 2050, entirely phasing out coal and leaving natural gas with just a 1% market share.”
- “Electric Vehicles (EVs) account for approximately 35% of the road transport market by 2035. . . . This growth trajectory sees EVs displace approximately 2 million barrels of oil per day (mb/d) in 2025 and 25 million mb/d in 2050.”
These unusually bright projections for PVs and EVs may sound like a pipe dream, but it really isn’t, since they are seen from the perspective of a group of hard-nosed energy market analysts. It fact, it is a wake-up call for the fossil fuel industry. It seems that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Business-As-Usual scenario (BAU) – in which nothing is done to bring down carbon emissions – is a misplaced designation for maintaining the status quo. In other words, BAU by itself may not be the correct “do-nothing blueprint” for the long-term survival of the fossil fuel industry.
More disturbing news for the current energy sector is the time required to recover from an initial market penetration by renewables. The report forewarns that “. . . a 10% shift in market share can be crippling for incumbents, such as in the value destruction experienced by EU utilities and the near collapse of the US coal sector. Scenarios produced in this study indicate that 10% shifts in market share from incumbents to solar PV or EVs could occur within a single decade.”
All this bodes well for renewables and not-so-good news for the fossil fuel industry. And it couldn’t have arrived at a more critical juncture in human history. At the same time, we must not mistake these encouraging findings on renewables with unrealistic expectations, since these optimistic projections will need some time to materialize. But they no longer appear to be on a distant horizon; some of these milestones are achievable within the next five to ten years. We’ll know soon enough whether these market scenarios for renewables prove to be correct or not.
To add even more to this positive outlook on renewables was the heartening news of a potential major breakthrough in electric battery technology. In late February this year, the press office at University of Texas in Austin announced that an innovative rechargeable electric battery – made of light weight, solid-cell glass – had been developed by a team of engineers at their Cockrell School of Engineering (https://news.utexas.edu/2017/02/28/goodenough-introduces-new-battery-technology). This effort was led by John Goodenough, the legendary co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, which is presently used in almost all home electronic products and electric vehicles on the market.
What is so unique and exciting about this new glass battery? In a recent piece published in IEEE Spectrum (March 3, 2017), the leading trade magazine of the electrical and electronics industry, it asked the following intriguing question on the article’s title: will a new glass battery accelerate the end of oil? (http://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/renewables/does-new-glass-battery-accelerate-the-end-of-oil).The article looked at several factors required for a successful adoption of this new technology: (a) stellar reputation of its lead inventors and patent holders – John Goodenough, and his colleague, Maria Helena Braga (Journal paper abstract: M. H. Braga, et al., “Alternative strategy for a safe rechargeable battery”, Energy & Environmental Science, Volume 10, pp 331 – 336, 2017; http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2017/EE/C6EE02888H#!divAbstract), (b) validation by a prominent researcher in the field, (c) the battery’s excellent physical/chemical properties, (d) ability to perform under extreme conditions, (e) high storage capacity and low recharge period, (f) minimal safety concerns, and (g) overall scale-up potential and practicality.
Let’s examine this innovation a bit further. To begin with, it has three times more storage capacity than current lithium-ion batteries. It takes minutes to recharge rather than hours. It eliminates problems of flammability in home electronic products (such as smart phones) by using solid-cells instead of liquid electrolytes. It’s adapted to use sodium-ion, that’s readily available in seawater, instead of more expensive lithium-ion, which in turn brings down production costs. It can easily substitute current lithium-ion batteries in all hybrid cars and EVs. Above all, it could be scaled-up to function as high-capacity energy storage for intermittent renewables, such as solar and wind electric power systems. In sum, this new technology resolves several outstanding problems in the application of renewables in one fell blow. Thus, in my opinion, the answer to the above question is: yes, it could very well accelerate the end of oil!
So, what do we make of this remarkable information on renewables given here? Do we now have grounds for a hopeful future, one in which the worst consequences of climate change and global warming may not take place. It certainly appears to be the case, if what is projected for renewables comes to fruition. Regardless of how policy makers may drag their feet in implementing measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the hand writing on the wall is clear: the swift rise of the renewable energy market can no longer be denied. The breakthrough in electric battery technology is the linchpin for the widespread adoption of renewables in the immediate future. Its projected growth, which was already about to take off in a sharply rising S-shaped curve, will now become almost unstoppable. What could have taken several decades to come about, may now happen in months or years.
In the meantime, the fossil fuel industry – coal, oil and natural gas – may huff and puff mightily for a while, but the tidal wave of change will occur, despite all attempts to stem this flow. Intelligent human interventions, coupled with technological breakthroughs, are societal consequences of cultural evolution, inasmuch as biological evolution is the natural outcome of organisms that live in close harmony with their environment. In this instance, we have more than hope on our side.
[Dr A. Karim Ahmed is Board Member and Secretary/Treasurer of the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington, DC. He is also Adjunct Professor at University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington, CT and Honorary Professor at University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa.]