Author: Edward Smith Published: 25/10/2023
As governments over the world make reaching commitments to green energy plans, there is growing concern that outdated power line infrastructure is threatening to stall net-zero energy production.
Earlier this week, the International Energy Agency, IEA, published a report showing that in order for meaningful climate action to take effect, the energy grids we currently rely on around the world would need to be updated and expanded. This would mean power lines, both overland and underground, would need to be assessed, replaced, or redirected on an unprecedented scale.
The IEA stressed that such grid changes need to be made due to the negative impact relying on the current grid would have on the climate. They state that, if this issue is not addressed, renewable rollout will be slower, and that between 2030 and 2050, over 60 billion tonnes of carbon more than global targets will be released into the atmosphere.
Dr Faith Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director, claimed that if not addressed, the grid in its current state will be an obstacle to future green innovations. “This report shows what’s at stake and needs to be done. We must invest in grids today or face gridlock tomorrow.”
Grid infrastructure can take upwards of ten years to plan and implement in most developed countries, “compared with one to five years for new renewables projects, and less than two for new charging infrastructure.”
"We must invest in grids today or face gridlock tomorrow.” - Dr Faith Birol -
The IEA’s report was also keen to stress how even smaller scale developments, while expensive, save the global economy billions. “Delayed grid development also increases the risk that economically damaging outages would multiply. Today, such outages already cost around 100 billion a year.” Substantial grid expansions, combined with newly developed energy production techniques would help to minimise this damage, and make the international energy economy more sustainable, not just environmentally, but economically.
On top of the changes required for current worldwide infrastructure to comply with green energy standards, these developments must also be consistently applied when building new infrastructure, if progress is to be achieved.
Slower deployment of new grid sections would risk temperatures rising “well above the Paris agreement target of 1.5 °C” as fewer new renewable plants would be able to come online.
It is estimated that upwards of 80 million kilometres of power lines would need to be introduced, either as extensions or replacements, for 2040 targets to be hit. This would mean nearly doubling the amount of money being invested into power storage and transport on a yearly basis, bringing it up to a cost of nearly 600 billion dollars a year.
Renewable energy benefits the global economy, not just the planet.
It is easy to see how green energy production in general could be at serious risk of bogging down, that problems are continuing to mount and that carbon neutral targets are getting more and more expensive. However, other studies have shown that the overall profits brought on by renewable energy dwarf these and other costs in the long term. It is broadly accepted that green energy is set to become the most efficient method of energy production overall, in spite of the aforementioned challenges.
Very soon, non-renewable energy sources will likely be more expensive to produce, run and maintain than their renewable counterparts. In a study published earlier this year, the UK Department for Energy Security and Net Zero claimed that solar power could be up to 35% cheaper than gas on a national level by 2025, with wind power being more than 60% cheaper. In essence, the cost of these new infrastructure developments would in fact be covered by the cheaper, more efficient green energy supplies.
A study published by Joule, a scientific journal focusing on energy and physics research, from late last year showed that if a rapid change to green energy production methods is made, the global economy would only benefit. If these changes to solar and wind were made immediately, it could save the global economy as much as 12 trillion dollars in the long haul, with lower estimates coming in at 5 trillion. These net savings would eclipse the infrastructural costs set above, and even pay back the hundreds of billions that new plants and production centres would require to fund such development projects.
The Joule study continues, showing that “even without accounting for climate damages […] transitioning to a net-zero energy system by 2050 is likely to be economically beneficial”. Not only this, but the faster these changes are made, the less expensive this process will be.
“even without accounting for climate damages […] transitioning to a net-zero energy system by 2050 is likely to be economically beneficial” - Study by Joule -
These impressive figures are credible due to the vast technological advances that are consistently being made in the fields of solar and wind power. While the efficiency and costs of fossil fuels have remained somewhat consistent over the past few decades, renewables have seen significant improvement. According to the Joule study, between 1995 to 2018, the lithium-ion batteries that are used in solar cells and wind farms became 12% cheaper to produce on average per year. This prompted a 30% increase in their rate of production per year.
Sustainable development in developing countries.
The IEA concluded its report explaining that new infrastructure projects would need to see a focus in the developing world even more-so than the developed world, requiring “stronger international collaboration”. Dr Birol added “by mobilising financing, providing access to technology and sharing best practices on policies, leading economies can help […] strengthen sustainable development and reduce the risk of climate change.”
In all, there has been a marked increase in spending on clean energy sources in the last ten years. Notably, following the 2015 Paris Agreement, the rate at which this spending grew went from 2% a year to 12% by 2020. Since then, it has increased year on year, with the IEA predicting that clean energy investment investments should be sufficient to hit net zero targets by 2050. As it stands today, over 80% of new energy investments are in renewable, green projects. With the costs of oil and gas rising, future investments in renewable energy sources stand a good chance of being funded by non-renewable energy companies “diversifying their spending”, with 5% of oil and gas expenditure already being aimed at this.
Developments towards net zero, or general renewable energy development plans are increasingly common and increasingly popular. As covered, the benefits of green energy are becoming more obvious, with even previously staunch coal oil and gas industries diversifying, and green tech outpacing its ecologically harmful counterpart. Infrastructural developments then are just another step in this process of development. While they will take time, they're a necessary part of any net zero plan, and have to be confronted.
Edward Smith is a professional journalist with a wide variety of experience and skills covering numerous topics. Writing for The Conference Corner, Edward has an interest in bringing forward important and informative details about the climate and new technologies into the public eye.