Magazines - 06/December/2020

Autumn/Winter 2020

The world electrified

Electrification is the way to decarbonisation

 

We now know we can secure the energy we need from zero carbon sources. Decarbonisation of the world’s economy is no longer the insurmountable challenge facing mankind that it was just a few years ago. Electrification is the key.

Electricity is an energy carrier that enables all sources of energy to be clean at their point of use. For this reason alone, electrification of energy use is a good idea. Electricity, however, is only as clean as the energy source from which it is generated, which can be dirty or clean. When energy is harnessed from the power of water flowing, the wind blowing or heat radiating from the sun and converted to electricity, the world’s decarbonisation goals are brought within reach.

Clean electrification of the global economy requires lots more electricity from renewable sources of energy. As well as providing light and powering appliances, green electricity must charge our cars, heat our buildings, and energise industrial processes heavily dependent on fossil fuel. More demand for electricity requires more of our power systems and more of the transmission and distribution wires designed for a previous age of centralised fossil fuel generation. The capacity of the wires must be boosted and power systems far better interconnected. Joined up and robust power systems are capable of absorbing shocks that destabilise the delicate balance of supply and demand in smaller, weaker systems.

Heating indoor spaces can be done cheaply and cleanly in urban areas using heating networks served by renewable energy. Denmark has shown the way. The scale of change needed is not to be underestimated, but even a country with challenges the size of those in the UK can decarbonise its heating and lower its cost, given sufficient political will to do so.

Electricity will also be needed to power electrolysers to produce hydrogen, a process that is entirely free of carbon emissions, as is its use. Hydrogen fuel cells hold potential to decarbonise heavy transport and hydrogen may replace fossil fuels in some industrial processes. Hydrogen trains are showing great promise and a few are in commercial operation. A consensus is emerging that these are the best applications for hydrogen and talk of using it in power and heating systems is a distraction.

The most carbon intensive use of fossil fuel is in heavy industry. Full electrification of cement and steel manufacturing, the two biggest sinners, would require new processes, innovations that may come up short for total decarbonisation. They are industries that need serious government help, not protection..

If nothing else, our deep dive into electrification is a positive story of human ingenuity at work. No longer is decarbonisation an aspiration impossible to achieve. Through electrification it can be done.

– David Weston, Editor

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