In a recent speech at an Asia Pacific Conference, Vaclav Smil, a well-known professor and writer of books on energy offered some interesting statistics on progress to address climate change.
Time is short. We are targeting a transition to net-zero emissions by 2050. History has some interesting comparisons:
• It took 100 years for the world to convert from wood to 50% coal
• It took 100 years to move to 40% oil
• It has taken 70 years to go from no gas to 25% natural gas
The first COP conference took place in Brazil in 1992, and at that time the world captured 87% of its primary energy from fossil fuel. That was 29 years ago, and today we are half-way between the Rio COP conference and the target for zero net emission.
The recent COP conference in Glasgow produced some interesting commitments and disagreements. China and India, two of the largest emitters, have committed to achieve net-zero by 2060 and 2070, though in the short term, both continue to burn coal for electricity generation. Coal is one of the single largest sources of emissions, creating more than twice the emissions of natural gas and operating at about half of the efficiency of natural gas combined cycle generation (CCGT) facility. A switch from coal to CCGT could reduce current emissions from electricity generation by almost 75%.
There are some interesting trends that are beginning to emerge. Between 2015 and 2019, total energy in the U.S. increased by 3.1%, and fossil fuel use decreased from 81.6% to 80%. A 27% decrease in coal use has largely been taken up by an 18% increase in natural gas use for generation, so when one factors in the efficiency gains in the use of natural gas generation, it is apparent that most of the transition off coal has been accomplished by a switch to natural gas. Germany has seen similar results. After 20 years of green initiatives, its dependence on fossil fuel remains at 78%, and in the last three years, its use of natural gas for electricity generation has increased by 50%.
It is apparent that despite major investments in solar and wind capacity, the transition to reduce emissions is progressing at a rate that may be too slow to achieve the target of net-zero by 2050. One reason for this is that the transition is not simple, and there are many factors within the existing energy systems that will be a challenge to change.
But another interesting factor has appeared in recent weeks. Countries in the EU that have not supported the German initiative to eliminate nuclear capacity and are continuing to utilize this fuel source have seen significantly better progress on emission reductions than countries that have followed the German initiative. France, which has generated more than 80% of its electricity from nuclear capacity for many years, has requested that Germany agree that nuclear is emission free and therefore should be classified as “green.” Germany has resisted this change, but there may be a shift in policy ahead. The topic was discussed at some length at COP26, and several countries including the U.S., U.K. and Japan supported the French position. There are also significant initiatives to move this activity forward in industry. Rolls Royce in the U.K. has received grants and investments of more than $500 million for development of modular nuclear generation facilities. Canada has ordered a 300 MW modular nuclear from GE/Hitachi to be running in Ontario by 2028, and the U.S. government is promoting nuclear micro reactors. China and India are developing reactors based on thorium, and there are now 22 companies actively working on fusion technology, with promising results. At last, it may not be 50 years away.
What would a mix of renewables and nuclear energy do to the energy grid of today and to the products emerging to manage grid 2.0?
Nuclear energy historically has been unable to provide short-term flexibility, but it can ramp up or down over significant periods of time. Nuclear energy, initially installed in the 1960-80 period, needed storage to capture night surplus capacity to be used during daytime. The capacity was firm but did not change over a single day. Pumped storage was installed in many locations to meet this need. Ironically, the need for storage for nuclear capacity is the exact opposite of what is needed for solar and wind. Nuclear is firm with no ability for short-term flexibility, while solar and wind are intermittent and need short-term storage to make them dispatchable. The potential addition of nuclear capacity to the current mix may have significant benefits as it may well be a complementary resource to intermittent renewables.
There has also been a lot of interest in recent times about the use of green hydrogen and fuel cell technology. This concept relies on the use of surplus electricity, but with the existing amount of renewable capacity, it is difficult to understand where that might have been captured. But with an addition of nuclear capacity, there might be surplus electrical capacity that would enable the hydrogen concepts to thrive.
We live in a time of rapid change. The change is going to be essential if we are to meet the target of zero-net emissions by 2050. There will need to be several important changes take place:
- We are very large consumers of energy, and our total energy system is less than 35% efficient. There is a growing need to improve efficiency, conserve and do more with less energy.
- There will be continued requirements to optimize the entire grid, from generation to loads, and this is an area where Generac Grid Services is a recognized leader.
- There will a fast-growing need to increase the delivery capacity of our existing transmission and distribution systems, and again, Generac is well positioned to be an industry leader in this area. The new PWRgenerator that runs only periodically when needed is an ideal product to start on this new concept.
- There will be a need for direct air carbon capture to reduce the current levels of carbon in the atmosphere and sequester it.
For some, the COP25 conference was seen as a failure to achieve full agreement on some important points, but it has given me real hope and enthusiasm for a future where — with innovation and careful planning that can react quickly to changing objectives — we can achieve the needed results. Generac has a track record and products that position us well. In addition, we have a culture and management team that can accommodate the change and the flexibility that will define the winners in the next few decades.