Discussion on energy and the road to electrifying the world
Updated: May 23
Interviewer: Antoine Rondelet, Founder @ Ganddee
Guest: Elisabeth Cremona, Energy & Climate Data Analyst @ Ember
Ember is an energy think tank with a particular focus on electricity systems transitions. Ember’s approach is very much grounded in data to provide key insights while avoiding bias. Ember has teams all over the world. They look at the power sector decarbonization from different perspectives, given the different specificities and contexts in each region and countries. Within the European team, and given that Europe is relatively advanced in terms of decarbonizing the power sector, their work is now less focused on shaping the broader narrative of coal phase out and gas powering down, but more on other things such as energy modelling, to look at specificities in Europe’s energy sector.
Elisabeth is an Energy and Climate Data Analyst working as part of the Europe Team at Ember, where she has a particular focus on the clean energy transition. She is Malta’s national energy agency’s former lead energy systems modeller, where she worked, among others, on the National Energy and Climate Plan and Malta’s 15-Year Electricity Supply Plan.
Antoine: In order to set the stage on what comes next, could you give your definition of “energy”?
Elisabeth (Ember): I actually have a very non-technical definition. For me, “energy” is just the basis of modern society. Everything that we do, progress and so on, ultimately stems from the forms of energy we have. I would, at this point, make a very clear distinction between energy and electricity because a lot of people confuse the two. It is key that we differentiate between the two, especially as it becomes more and more clear that electrifying our energy demand is actually the best way to get to a clean system overall.
Deciding what is “clean” (as in, clean energy or clean electricity more specifically) and what is not is probably slightly subjective. Maybe there is an established list of criteria to help differentiate the two, I don’t know. What is your definition of “clean”?
At Ember, we work a lot with different organizations, some of which have very strict criteria for what they consider to be “clean”. As we try to maintain as little bias as possible, for us, when it comes to electricity, bioenergy and nuclear are clean. They have very close to zero carbon emissions when it comes to electricity generation, which is what most people tend to look at. There are a lot of discussions on the different safety or environmental sustainability criteria about bioenergy, but that’s not really something we get into. When it comes to the overall lifecycle of the materials that go into creating these clean electricity generators, it gets even more complicated, and this isn’t really something we enter. It is something a lot harder to control, especially for countries like in Europe, which tend to import a lot of these technologies. It is definitely something we are seeing being talked about a lot more, however, especially with these discussions about how to decarbonize the steel industry and the cement industry, which are ultimately some of the biggest contributors to the lifecycle emissions of these plants. Wind turbines have massive concrete structures, so you kind of just have to decarbonize the cement industry in order to have a cleaner wind turbine. It is not something that can be done in isolation, in my opinion at least.
Surely, nothing is a silver bullet, there is always a spectrum to navigate. Hydroelectricity, with dams especially, can cause great harm to nature etc. Is there a standard “score” or standard list of criteria, like a benchmark, evaluating the best and worst energy sources generally?
It’s a good question. Unfortunately, it is not something that I know of, at least, if it exists. I mean, there are certain pieces of work that exist that you can use, such as the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). But, in order to kind of grade energy technologies by impact, I’m thinking about a table or a chart, I think that very much depends on the location, so it becomes very difficult to have a general idea. So, for example, you mentioned hydropower plants, of course if you are to locate them in the middle of the rainforest in Brazil it’s going to have a massive impact, but if you locate them somewhere in Norway where absolutely no one lives and the impact is pretty minimal on the environment, that’d be a different story. So, it’s a pertinent question, and it also very much relates to how quickly these kinds of technologies can be built.
Ember, in June of this year, came up with a report where we looked at how to get to a 1.5°C compatible system in Europe, and we did have a section where we compared the different technologies. Of course there are many pathways that can get you there, so, in one of our pathways, we had a lot more of nuclear than in our central pathway just to see what the differences would be, and we did try to have a standardized method to kind of compare technologies. One of the easiest ways to do this is “cost”, which is a very basic element when it comes to decision-making. There is so much more though, like the geopolitical risks, the social issues, e.g. relating to acceptability etc. so this is very difficult to find a standardized way of evaluating technologies. If such a benchmark exists, certainly I don’t know about it, but I would like to.
Do we have data that actually tells us about the lifecycle of specific pieces of infrastructure? For instance, do we know how many years wind farms are going to last (under “standard” weather conditions)? Do we have some data that can help us here?
There are standard lifetimes that exist, especially two in my experience.
First, you have the economic lifetime, which is when you know that the plant is going to be operating at its optimal capacity, no major issues in terms of retrofitting or refurbishment will be required, so it’s what you base your business case on. In terms of wind farms, I would say, previously it would be about 20 to 25 years. Now, it’s going up to 25 to 30 years in terms of economic lifetime. This just reflects how the technologies and the installations have improved.
Then, you have the technical lifetime of the plant, which is how long you can keep it going for. So really, you don’t take it into account in your business case because there is a higher risk involved, but the plant may continue to operate for much longer. For nuclear plants in Europe for instance, there are retrofitting options that can extend the lifetime from 40 years up to 80 years, same in the US. I think the majority of the plants are being extended. So, with refurbishment or retrofitting, you can stretch the technical lifetime of the infrastructure.
Both economic and technical lifetimes are pretty standard metrics associated with different technologies.
I’m interested to touch on the economics of clean energy. While it most certainly differs greatly from one geography to another, what does the data tell us in terms of how clean electricity sources fare against fossil fuel-based electricity around the world? Do we see trends? Is it becoming significantly cheaper to produce clean electricity?
Yes, I think no matter what side of the camp you’re on it is undeniable that, especially in the case of solar and wind, the costs have come down exponentially. You always have this kind of trend, where, as the manufacturing volumes increase, your overall price starts to decrease. I think for every doubling of your manufacturing capacity, you get a certain decrease in terms of price. We have seen solar and wind costs come down, especially solar in the most recent 3/5 years and the decline has been exponential. This decline has been particularly sharp in Europe where there was an initial sort of embargo on Chinese PV panels, and since that came down, we’ve seen an explosion in terms of manufacturing capacity that’s available. Prices have dropped significantly, and even before the crisis we’ve had in terms of gas costs, it was already cheaper to produce or build a new wind and solar farm than it was to build any new type of thermal power station. Coal, gas, nuclear whatever it was, it would be cheaper to build the equivalent in wind and solar. Obviously, we’re talking about different types of electricity that are produced, but if you are just looking at building the same capacity as either a thermal plant or a solar or wind plant, the solar or wind option is definitely cheaper. This, not even to mention that you don’t have associated fuel costs, have lower variable costs, operational maintenance, and so on.
With the current cost of gas, and the trends we expect now, if you were to build a gas fired power station in Europe today, it would cost you 10 times as much to build it and to run it, than it would with a solar or wind plant. So, in general, the costs have come down compared to gas, there’s absolutely no comparison.
Are there geographical areas where this gap is not as big as in Europe? I’m thinking about developing markets, for instance. There are still some big investments from oil companies there etc. So, do we see these costs coming down generally in Europe/US, or is that a global trend and also applicable to developing markets?
When we look at these different regions where the prices of clean energy still tend to be higher, I think it’s more because of a combination of two completely separate factors than because of the price of the actual plant.
For example, solar panels can be bought from anywhere, the additional cost which makes these infrastructures more expensive in certain regions has to do with grid connection. In Vietnam this year, for instance, there weren’t any solar panels installed simply because they couldn’t build the grids in time. A huge amount of costs associated with building solar plants comes just from having to build the grid connections. These grid connection costs can add up to a lot, especially in developing regions because they are not yet prepared, the infrastructure does not yet exist.
Second, which to me could be even more important, is financing. The cost of capital can increase just because the financing conditions are not suitable in particular regions: the risks are too high, the economic situation in the country isn’t suitable for these kinds of investment etc. This can increase your cost of capital exponentially. There’s a huge difference if you have to pay 2% interest or a 22% interest on the capital you borrow, and that all comes from financing. This is why, especially around this COP, we’re seeing such a push for developed/more developed nations to really create this massive fund to help developing countries finance these infrastructure projects. They need to have this flow of capital available to invest.
The visualizations on the “Data Explorer” page of the Ember website are very interesting. Looking at the (Global) “shares” visualization, we get this feeling that clean ways of producing electricity are gaining ground on fossil fuel-based electricity. However, looking at the (Global) “absolute” visualization, we get an entirely different story. There, we can see all energy sources are generally growing, and renewables are “just” providing extra firepower on top of fossil fuel electricity, instead of replacing it. This is not particularly surprising, since energy is needed for absolutely everything in our economies (goods and services alike). So, in our current economic system, GDP growth requires more energy (there’s a direct correlation). First, do you agree with my interpretation of the graphs? If so, do we start to observe a genuine global substitution in energy sources from fossil fuels to clean sources (around the world)?
You’re completely right. In terms of absolute values, all types of energy are increasing, but we do see, as a share, the chunk of clean growing. I think this is to be expected if you’re looking specifically at electricity.
While you have different trends in different regions, you have a lot of electrification in the more advanced economies. With more and more electrification, there is an increase in electricity demand, but, oftentimes, wind and solar electricity cannot come online fast enough to make up for this increased demand, so fossil fuels are used to fill the gap. We also see a huge demand increase in all types of energy in the developing world, electricity included. For these reasons, all energy sources remain high.
It might still not be enough, but we do see clean electricity production starting to increase, to at least, keep up with demand, which is very positive. For instance, globally this year, we saw electricity demand increase by 3% which is quite significant, but there was absolutely no increase in electricity from oil, gas, and coal. Those stayed completely the same, meaning that 3% growth in demand was met completely with renewables. In Chile, for instance, we’ve recently noticed that this month wind and solar overtook coal as the major contributor to electricity production in the country. So, we’re seeing these very positive stories come out.
It is very clear that both the trends of electrification and decarbonizing power systems need to accelerate. This is why we see such a push towards wind and solar, but this potentially not fast enough because it not only needs to cover the newer electricity demand but also start to replace oil and gas. An acceleration is definitely needed.
I see. On a personal level, I am really interested to see if/when we start substituting dirty energy sources with clean electricity. If we keep running after economic parameters and blindly play the numbers (go up) game, the short term temptation will be to just stack energy sources on top of each other to push for short term growth.
I think this is ultimately the crux of the energy transition overall. The thing that will make a big difference in the scenario you just described is “efficiency”. If we just move our energy demand to clean electricity, we might not be able to increase wind and solar fast enough, unless we really start to push on efficiency. I don’t mean changing our behavior, but rather, investing in certain technologies that really make the whole process so much more efficient. We won’t actually need to have a huge amount of wind and solar. The rates at which we are planning to have these deployments could be enough if we implement very strategic efficiency measures. That could bring down just how much electricity demand there will be, meaning that wind and solar will be enough to start to substitute as well as to meet the new demand, so I think then, that kind of extra element of efficiency can make a massive difference.
Do you think we have the tools to get more efficient within the end of the decade and stay aligned with the Paris Agreement, or is that relying on assumptions that new technologies would emerge to help us get more efficient?
I think the technologies that could get us there already exist, especially if we speak of 2030. I think what’s very difficult is to actually deploy them.
One of the major potential efficiency savings would come from renovating buildings. This is something the EU and so many countries talk about, but as far as I know, the average rate of renovation, deep renovation, has never reached more than 1% in any country. We’d need to be at something like 3% already. So, I think the technologies exist, obviously we could find better ones, but the technologies that we have are enough especially for the end of the decade but the rate at which we’re implementing them is not enough. I think this is a very consistent theme, whether we talk about wind and solar infrastructure deployment or implementation of efficiencies, we have the tools, we are doing it, but not fast enough. It’s really tough to find a way to accelerate these trends.
After spending more time looking at Ember’s data visualizations, I found it interesting to see the contrast between countries like Iceland which is running on 100% clean electricity (Malawi or Kyrgyzstan for e.g. are also doing well) and other countries that run almost exclusively on electricity from fossil fuels. While fossil fuels can be loaded on a ship and shipped to the other side of the planet, it seems difficult to achieve a similar thing with electricity. Instead of loading electricity on big batteries to be sent on the other side of the Atlantic, it seems more reasonable to connect the electricity grids of all countries together. You touched on this earlier when talking about the challenges and costs of connecting the grids. Generally, according to you, what are the main obstacles to electrifying the world? What’s preventing us from becoming fully electrified today?
We’re starting to touch on one of my favorite topics, which is the grids.
So, in terms of electrification, I think we are starting to realize that a significant chunk of our energy end uses can be electrified. Now, it’s going to be very tough to reach a pace that will get us to high electrification rates. Electrifying the world means that you essentially have to start substituting a lot of equipment that already exists and that is relatively young. Industries will have to start substituting boilers that may have just been installed. Same thing for households with gas cookers, gas boilers etc. It is going to be tough for people and/or for governments to incentivize people to start to change these technologies very quickly. For me, this is a barrier to the rate of acceleration of electrification.
When it comes to moving electricity around, as you said or alluded to, certain countries have more advantages than others. If we look at the North Sea in Europe, in terms of wind as a resource, it’s fantastic. On top of that, the waters are very shallow, which means you can install relatively cheap sea wind turbines there. When it comes to Southern Europe, Spain, for instance, can install huge amounts of solar panels: they have land, they have the perfect solar resource. Now, how do you move that electricity around? Europe at the moment has, as far as I’m aware, the most interconnected continental system that exists. It’s something like 93 Gigawatts in terms of all the interconnected transmission lines, which is a huge feat. There is this idea of having a European super-grid and then, eventually, a global super-grid.
In terms of having a global super-grid, I think we are only just starting to get to the technologies we need in terms of electric transmission cables that can carry electricity over huge distances. If we look at Mongolia, their solar resource, and again the amount of area they have, is enormous, so they could probably power the world. That being said, to transfer all that power all the way across this massive country to reach other areas we need massive HVDC cables which are only just really starting to take off. In fact, I think Ireland is going to be using one of the first ones of these long sub sea cables to connect to France. Building this global super-grid becomes more and more technically feasible. In the meantime, we have to improve our European grid connected system now. Technologies exist and it makes sense to do so. It keeps the cost down and also keeps costs very stable. If we look at 2021, so before the gas cost crisis, there was a study that came out from the European association of regulators called ACER that estimated that the volatility in electricity prices would have been 7 times greater if we didn’t have these interconnections on the grid. The benefits are clear, the technology exists, it’s just a matter of laying down more lines.
I am very interested in finding out what the barriers are for this. We’ve done a lot of work on quantifying the needs, and now part of this work stream that we have at Ember is going to start to look at the barriers to these expansions (of the grid). No doubts there are political ones. Trying to connect Spain to Germany for instance means that you have to go through France, and we’ve already seen, with the MidCat pipeline notably, that there are political issues around that. We will probably see them reflected in the electricity interconnectors as well. We also know that the central European area is the least interconnected from the European system. I’m not quite sure what the barriers would be there to add more connections, I don’t know if there would be political or cost issues.
Some of these questions are not entirely clear, but this is something we are going to be working towards because as we become more electrified, more renewable, if we don’t have the electricity system prepared to actually take on these new sources of power and these new power demands, it is going to stall the whole process.
We’ve talked about increasing interconnections on the grid to improve movement of electricity between countries, but what about electricity storage? Having reserves of energy to withstand extreme weather conditions or major geopolitical events is generally needed. While we can store fossil fuels in dedicated reserves, it seems rather hard to store electricity, e.g. by using very large batteries. How to go about this?
The more we are moving towards living through climate change induced extreme events, the more pertinent this is going to become to sort of “weatherproof” our energy technologies, all of them. I think there are two kinds of such events.
First, there are the events we know are going to happen, but infrequently. Really bad storms, for instance, which mean that we cannot use, or cannot expect electricity to be coming from certain wind farms and that means we want to depend on certain connection lines and have some hydropower. We have to start to make plans for how we would deal with these kinds of situations and contingencies which we know will come.
When it comes to the situation where a country is suddenly on its own, with no operational interconnection lines, all wind farms shut down because of extreme weather etc., we need to talk about energy security. In my opinion, energy security is just about redundancy, which is very costly. In this case, I would prefer to invest or to maintain a couple of gas turbines and a certain amount of gas storage, run that for, whatever, the two weeks it’s going to take me to get the rest of my power system back online and leave it at that. I wouldn’t invest in a massive battery that I’m going to have to waste a lot of electricity to keep refilling and make sure it’s ready. I suppose it all depends on the country, but when it comes to security, it is about the very expensive topic that no one wants to discuss, redundancy. Just keep things there in case one day you have to use them.
To wrap up, looking at new technologies/industries like EVs, DAC etc., these have lots of pros and cons and these industries consume a lot of energy. Some “clean” industries, as shiny as they may sound, look extraordinarily expensive to bootstrap, which really begs for an acute decision-making when it comes to implementing green transitions. Do we have the data, today, to help us make decisions and adopt a suitable strategy towards switching to a greener energy system?
There definitely exists this kind of data for certain technologies. One that immediately came to mind is heating. We’ve been seeing a lot of the gas lobbies and associated industries focused a lot on hydrogen heating. Basically, how, in 20 years time, our houses are going to be heated by hydrogen. We won’t really need to change our boilers, it will just work. Apart from these few people, it’s extremely clear that it makes absolutely no sense to use hydrogen for heat. There is such a huge amount of losses at every stage of the process. For electricity to become hydrogen there is a loss, for hydrogen to be transported there is a huge loss, to burn hydrogen in a boiler to produce heat another huge loss. Instead, you can just take the electricity that was produced, use it in a heat pump, which is hugely efficient, and get heat. So, when it comes to heating it is very clear that hydrogen is not going to be part of the solution, except again for these few people, and heat pumps are the way to go. So, there are these very clear indications for certain sectors. Same thing with the steel production, where it is the opposite: it’d be impossible, as far as I know, based on current technologies, to use electricity in these processes, so that’s where hydrogen needs to come in.
I think it is a really key question to ask when we are looking upstream for decision-making, and when it comes to prioritizing where these new technologies and investments need to go. If we want them to be in sectors that make sense, we do need to know the tradeoffs between the different options. When it comes to heating, transport and heavy industry, we already have very clear indications on what technologies make sense and where it makes sense to electrify.
The floor is yours, anything you’d like to mention or share with the community?
Nothing I can think of now, thanks.
We originally published this interview on OCRA, a climate forum and community that we started. This interview has been moved to our blog following the closure of the OCRA forum.
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