The global climate crisis is motivating worldwide action. Nations and industries are looking for ways to decarbonize and reduce their CO2 emissions, pursuing ambitious targets with legislation and investment in innovation. At the heart of this battle is the energy transition. In this article, Evoqua Water Technologies looks at this critical shift and how manufacturing, technology, and infrastructure are the solution.
The energy transition is all about finding new ways to decarbonize the population’s activity while preserving the quality of life for people worldwide. To better understand the energy transition, looking at the current situation, possible alternatives, and avenues for solutions is essential.
Why Do We Need the Energy Transition?
The primary drive behind the energy transition is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which help to trap heat within the atmosphere. This increased heat is having irreversible effects on the planet, including melting of the polar ice caps, sea level rises, warming oceans, droughts, more frequent natural disasters, food scarcity, loss of species, poverty, and displacement. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the climate crisis is its duration and complexity, it requires complex, multifactorial solutions that often compete with short-term interests. Breaking it down to the simplest measurement, global temperatures increased by 1.1˚C between 1901 and 2020. The Paris Climate Agreement aims to halt its rise well below 2.0˚C, targeting a maximum of 1.5˚C in 2030, just 8 years away.
What is the Current Situation?
Each year, humanity emits around 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases, a staggering and incomprehensible figure. Energy, in the form of electricity, heat, and propulsion makes up for around 72% of our total emissions and is a key focus area for those seeking solutions to the climate crisis. In 2021, 89% of energy sector greenhouse gas emissions were from energy combustion and industrial processes, with coal, oil, natural gas, and methane making up the vast majority.
What are the Alternatives?
The energy transition aims to replace reliance on fossil fuels with zero- or low-emission alternatives, bringing total greenhouse gas emissions to a level that is sustainable for the planet in the long term. It is a balancing act between short-term interventions and long-term ambitions to reduce the impact of people’s energy needs. According to the International Energy Renewable Agency (IRENA), we should pursue an aggressive energy efficiency strategy to minimize total energy demand while ramping up renewable energy capabilities to replace fossil fuels.
This is already taking place in many regions of the world. According to the International Energy Authority (IEA), photovoltaic (PV) solar and wind energy are leading the renewable charge, with more than 700 terawatt-hours (TWh) created in 2022 – the largest rise to date. Without this investment, annual emissions would have been 600 million tonnes higher, highlighting the importance of a ‘bias for action’.
Hydrogen or, more specifically, green hydrogen, is seen as one of the key contributors to global decarbonization, from energy generation to transportation. What makes hydrogen special is that it is a fantastic way of storing energy and creates no emissions in its use or creation, which is why the ‘green’ in green hydrogen is so crucial. Green hydrogen is hydrogen that has been created using renewable energy and electrolysis as opposed to deriving it from fossil fuels like natural gas or coal.
Competition is driving down the costs of renewable energy through increased innovation for better generation technologies. This includes larger wind turbines, more efficient solar panels, and even improved financing to make technologies more affordable. Renewable energy is becoming more cost competitive with fossil fuels, which makes the need to be able to store and transport it even more important.
Another important low-emission source of energy is nuclear power. While high-profile incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima have caused apprehension among the public, statistics show that it results in 99.9% fewer deaths than brown coal; 99.8% fewer than coal; 99.7% fewer than oil; and 97.6% fewer than gas; with wind and solar being equivalently safe. Many see it as playing an important role in electrical grid stability and helping to enable and accelerate the energy transition.
Role of Engineering, Technology, and Infrastructure
Facing an unprecedented threat, humanity is fighting back with ingenuity to save the planet. Through technology, innovation, engineering, and infrastructure, we are finding new solutions to improve our efficiency and become more sustainable. According to IRENA, innovation is: “at the heart of a successful, sustainable, and just energy transformation, essential in mitigating the impacts of climate change while improving energy security.”
From digitalization to electrification, quality standards to systemic innovation, the solution to the climate crisis lies with scientists, engineers, and manufacturers. But making all this possible requires substantial investment. Over the next 30 years, it is estimated that USD 100 trillion will be required to fund the global decarbonization effort.
One important example of innovation and investment is the rise in PV solar efficiency. In 2012, Solar Frontier developed a panel that claimed to be 17.8% efficient, fast-forward to 2020 and researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) developed a six-junction III-V solar cell with an astonishing 47.1% claimed efficiency. For context, your average home rooftop solar panels are around 20-22% efficient.
It's clear that there is already a lot of activity and momentum toward the energy transition, but we are still far from a certain outcome. Focusing on areas of maximum effect and harnessing ingenuity and talent within the sciences, engineering, and manufacturing is proving to be decisive. Backed by green investment and robust government policies, the energy transition towards zero-emission activities and industries is accelerating, signaling a brighter future ahead for humanity and the planet.