ENERGY WATCH #2 - September 11, 2018
IRENA Innovation Week: energy transition is taking us into uncharted territory
by Karel Beckman
As the energy system is gradually being transformed, we are more and more getting into uncharted territory. We are in effect entering a new planet, where we will be confronted with new challenges. For example: security of supply, as we discuss here.
Fortunately, we have some pioneers and guides who are leading the way and setting out signposts for us to follow. One of those guides is IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency), an intergovernmental organisation “that supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future, and serves as the principal platform for international cooperation, a centre of excellence, and a repository of policy, technology, resource and financial knowledge on renewable energy.”
Founded in Bonn in 2009, IRENA – which was to a large extent a German initiative – now has 170 member countries. Its head office is in Abu Dhabi, its research arm is headquartered in Bonn. On 5-6 September, IRENA organized its second Innovation Week in Bonn, which was intended “to offer solutions for a renewable-powered future”.
Dolf Gielen, head of the IRENA Innovation and Technology Centre in Bonn, presented a simple overview of the “landscape” that we will have to navigate. In this journey we have four major navigation tools:
- Enabling technologies
- Business models
- Market design
- System operation
These will have to set us on the three major pathways that should get us to the promised decarbonized land:
- Integration and flexibility
- More renewable energy
- Electrification of the transport, industry and building sectors
This seems to me a useful map for policymakers and other strategists thinking about the energy future.
But it’s of course at a very high level of abstraction. Each country will have to find its own ways of translating this into practice.
Even within Europe, different regions have very different starting points, explained Kristian Ruby, Secretary-General of Eurelectric, the European association of electricity companies. Ruby presented the Decarbonization Pathways which Eurelectric has drawn up together with McKinsey and which it published earlier this year. He made it clear that this is uncharted territory indeed.
Eurelectric considers three pathways, 80%, 90% and 95% emission reductions:
If we want to get these destinations by 2050, we will have to start moving much, much faster than we are doing now, Ruby showed:
As the chart shows, 95% CO2 reduction will require an 8% CO2 emission reduction per annum, 8 times as fast as today.
Nevertheless, according to Ruby, even this ambitious pathway is doable. What it will require, he said, are three main actions: 1) massive energy savings 2) massive electrification and 3) interestingly, a big power-to-gas effort.
Total final energy consumption will have to be reduced from around 50 Exajoule today to slightly over 30 Exajoule in 2050, i.e. 40%. Part of this will be achieved through electrification, which in itself leads to improved energy efficiency. Electric cars for example are much more efficient than cars with an internal combustion engine.
The electrification effort is also ambitious, especially in the transport sector, which will have to go from less than 1% electrification today to 63% in 2050. That means a huge growth in EVs. Buildings will have to go from 34% now to 60% and industry from 33% to 50%.
All of this will require tremendous innovation, said Adnan Amin, Secretary-General of IRENA. Not in the sense of “technological breakthroughs”. The technologies are there. But they have to be deployed at scale. “We need innovations that will allow us to use the abundant renewable energy we have”, said Amin. That includes innovations in business models and financing.
At the Innovation Week a great many innovations were presented, as one might expect. For example, Torber Funder-Kristensen of Danfoss presented the “Total Energy Store” developed by Danfoss especially for supermarkets. It turns out that almost no supermarket in the world uses the waste heat that its cooling systems generate. Danfoss has developed a system that can connect this heat to a thermal grid. This can also be used by data centers and airports, for example.
One of the holy grails researchers are pursuing is how to store cheap “excess” renewable energy. Avi Brenmiller of Israeli company Brenmiller Energy presented an interesting solution in the shape of a thermal energy storage unit. How this works is shown in this chart:
With the help of the storage unit, low-cost renewable energy and waste heat can be used to produce steam for industrial processes, as well as hot water and electricity.
Brenmiller said the storage unit contains a natural storage medium, in the form of crushed rocks, and is 95% efficient. The company is currently building a first unit in the State of New York which will replace a steam generator there. It can easily be scaled up – and down, noted Brenmiller.
Another form in which “excess” renewables can be used is to convert it into hydrogen through electrolysis or (by adding CO2) into methane or methanol. This solution is getting more and more attention: IRENA presented a new “hydrogen technology outlook” at the Innovation Week. More about this here.