What can bring us to zero by 2050?


More than 110 countries and countless companies have committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, but can they do it with existing technologies? Probably not.

The world is relying on electrification to replace fossil fuels, which means that global electricity needs could double between 2020 and 2050 according to McKinsey. The grid is far from being prepared. Wind, solar and battery technology have already achieved a lot, but are not base load solutions. Advances in energy efficiency, biomass, solar heating and geothermal energy are also encouraging, but overall, existing technologies can at best neutralize 50 to 60% of CO2 emissions. No wonder Bill Gates believes that new “breakthrough technologies” are essential to achieve net zero emissions, as he did in his. argued new book.

But the net zero equation is complex. The transition to battery-powered electric vehicles, for example, will increase the demand for nickel, aluminum, phosphorus, iron and copper by 10-14 times by 2030. Bloomberg estimates. Since the reserves are exhausted and increasingly difficult to extract, the extraction could require an even higher consumption of diesel fuel and fresh water.

In the hard-to-reduce industries that require thermal and steam power, the situation is even more complicated. Cement, chemicals and metals, for example, still depend on coal and natural gas power plants. As part of the Paris Agreement, industrial clusters such as the port of Rotterdam, the German Ruhr area and others around the world Got to Shut down coal-fired power plants by the early 2030s. But what is the alternative? Which technologies can neutralize the 40 to 50% of the emissions that are difficult to reduce at an acceptable cost? Net zero emissions by 2050 is a pipe dream unless we answer this awkward question.

Let’s look at the four options that got the most attention:

1. Point-of-source carbon capture for coal-fired power plants

Summary: A hit Limited; Roll-out time – 2021-5; costs – Affordable; feasibility – Makeable

A lot of good news has emerged from the area of ​​carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). Today it is possible to retrofit coal-fired power plants with nanofiltration systems that capture around 90% of the carbon emitted. These point-of-source capture solutions will be critical over the next 20 years before more effective net-zero technologies scale. Ideally, the captured carbon is recycled into other industrial processes such as cement production.

Most CO2 emissions, however, need to be stored permanently, and so far there is no inexpensive way to do this on a large scale. Carbon pricing can change this by opening up a CCUS marketplace that is becoming attractive for investment – similar to the way solar subsidies opened up investment opportunities a decade ago. Still, source carbon capture is unlikely to be a permanent solution, and the technology should Not to be used as an excuse for ongoing coal production and the construction of more coal-fired power plants.

Direct Air Carbon Capture (DAC), which can happen anywhere, will also be important. But before it could work on a large scale, costs would have to drop dramatically and carbon taxes would have to rise steeply. Therefore, DAC is unlikely to play a significant role until 2030.

2. hydrogen

Summary: A hit Moderate; Roll-out time – 2021-35; costs – Expensive; feasibility – Moderate

Interest in hydrogen is now renewed as many countries and companies have made it a pillar of their net-zero strategies. Unfortunately, hydrogen has drawbacks that limit its impact on emissions.

Hydrogen is more of a storage solution than an energy source, which means it is more expensive by default than the solar or wind power used to make it. Energy consultant Michael Liebreich, founder and former chairman of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Remarks that hydrogen for storage has to be compressed to 700 times the atmospheric pressure and cooled to -253 ° C. Correct storage is crucial as the “Houdini” of gases, as hydrogen is called, escapes easily and is highly flammable. Not a good combination. Elon Musk. was once asked about his perspective on hydrogen fuel cells To make it short: “I just find them extremely silly.” Take this with caution from the CEO of a battery-powered electric vehicle manufacturer.

Today, most of the hydrogen is produced by steam methane reforming, a process that uses natural gas as a raw material and releases carbon emissions (which can be captured). Hydrogen can be “green” if the producer electrolyzes water with renewable energy to generate electricity, but this is an inefficient and expensive process that requires a lot of space. For example, for green hydrogen to play a meaningful role in electrifying the Netherlands, the entire North Sea would have to be filled with wind turbines, and even that would not provide enough clean electricity.

Despite its drawbacks, hydrogen can play a role in the energy transition – just not the leading role that many oil and gas companies market to the public. Jade Cove, a venture firm, argues that “Hydrogen is Big Oil’s last great scam” – Another disinformation campaign to make their pipeline infrastructure, LNG terminals and natural gas look valuable even if the world goes without hydrocarbons.

3. Nuclear fission

Summary: A hit High; Roll-out time – 2028 and beyond; costs – Expensive; feasibility – PR nightmare

Nuclear fission could make a significant contribution to the energy transition, but the global public has turned against it, as it splits atoms to trigger a potentially dangerous chain reaction. France, which differs from. derives 70% its electricity, through low-carbon nuclear power plants, is increasingly solitary and actually cut its nuclear capacity. The radioactive emissions can pollute ecosystems or be turned into nuclear weapons. The recent core meltdown in Fukushima showed that fission reactions can also occur at Jan. can still get out of controlst Century technology.

Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technology from companies such as NuScale make nuclear fission safer, cheaper and faster online. Even so, NuScale and his colleagues are now fighting an uphill battle against a skeptical public and their regulators.

4. Fusion energy

Summary: A hit High; Roll-out time – 2028 and beyond; costs – moderate; feasibility – Very promising

Fusion is the holy grail of electrification. It could provide plentiful, cheap, clean, and safe base load power. Instead of splitting atoms like in a fission reactor, a fusion reactor collides hydrogen isotopes to produce helium and heat. The same process takes place in stars. One kilogram of fusion fuel from seawater is equivalent to 55,000 barrels of oil and is enough to heat 10,000 households for a year. And unlike nuclear fission, fusion produces traces of radioactive material that cannot be used in weapons.

Proven in the laboratory, the merger recently entered the scale-up phase. The publicly funded international experiment ITER is building its first reactor, which experts believe will generate net positive energy by the late 2030s through the mid 2040s. More than 25 private companies are now running for the completion of demo systems by 2025 and the first commercial systems by 2030 or earlier [In full disclosure, I am investor in one of these companies]. Raising sufficient funds from investors, once the main obstacle to the merger, is becoming less of a problem.

Fusion offers considerable advantages over the alternatives discussed. It delivers constant base load energy that is sufficient to replace coal-fired power plants for heavy industry, megacities and electric mobility. Unlike sun and wind, it is not geographic and it blows hydrogen out of the water in terms of net energy yield and cost.

It should be noted that, due to modular scaling, fusion reactors can be relatively small (250 MW) or large. This makes investment permits more feasible than traditionally large fission plants. Plus, the smaller base sizes of the merger could make the technology relevant to propelling ships or even rockets to Mars.

If the merger goes online by 2030, net zero will be achievable by 2050. It is no longer timely for the International Energy Agency (IEA), Bloomberg, etc. to add mergers to their annual energy forecasts and tell decision-makers that it is a viable alternative to coal-fired power plants.

Nothing is off the table, but …

Fusion energy is Not a panacea that will render other clean technologies irrelevant. Solar, wind, geothermal energy, hydropower, solar heat, nuclear fission and hydrogen will play a role in the energy mix of the future. However, the priority is preparing for the electrification of everything, and fusion is the missing link to achieve a net-zero energy mix by 2050. ESG and impact investors please note: net zero by 2050 is not only possible, but likely if the world supports the merger. Let’s stop pulling our heels.

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