COP26: Let’s join forces for net zero

COP26: Let’s join forces for net zero

Tarak Mehta, President of ABB Electrification

With COP26 just two weeks away, I was pleased to join the TIME panel “Addressing the World’s Energy Challenges” with moderator Mark BartonAntoine Jourdain CTO of Enedis, and Timur Gül Head of Energy Technology Policy at the International Energy Agency.

It is an important discussion on a part of the energy transition and reaching net zero that has largely been overlooked: the power grid.

Clean electrification is of course a major pillar of the IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 roadmap. It would eliminate nearly three-fourths of global emissions across buildings, industry and transportation.

Obviously, our first challenge is to make that electricity truly clean. That means that by 2040, 90% of electricity must come from renewable sources. We have already made enormous progress, with 29% of electricity from renewable generation globally. We still have work to do, but we are on track.

The second challenge is the one that needs much more attention: we need to make our power grids capable of managing that renewable energy. Today’s power grid wasn’t built for variable sources, so it can’t capture and use all of the renewable energy. We’re wasting renewable energy, and using fossil fuels as backup when solar and wind are low. We can’t afford that.

The third challenge is the complexity of the modern grid. For close to 85 years, the grid has been a one-way highway. Now, it’s becoming an intersection. If you picture the famous Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, you get an idea of what’s happening to the power grid. 

The grid has to support new demand sites, like electric vehicles (EVs). It also supports new supply sites like home solar panels and battery storage, as well as EVs with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging, like the 4,000 Nissan Leaf EVs feeding power back to the grid in France, through our partnership with DREEV.

The fourth challenge is rising electricity demand, which will more than double by 2050. For example, electrifying transportation is obviously vital to reaching net zero, but every electric car also consumes as much electricity as a house. For EVs alone, we will either need double the infrastructure (from over 1.4 million km of cables to 2.8 million in France, for example) or, we will have to manage existing infrastructure more intelligently with smart grid technology.

The good news is that digitalization helps solve all three grid challenges. Smart grids connect all those supply and demand sites to make demand more flexible. They use AI to shift user demand automatically in buildings and EVs to times when renewable energy is available, to use all that renewable energy. Then they add grid capacity, by feeding energy back into the grid, when solar and wind are low. The European Commission estimates smart grid flexibility would save billions per year across the European Union from now until 2030, by preventing unnecessary infrastructure expansion.

How effective will smart grids be in helping 137 countries around the world to meet their net zero commitments?

Let’s look at Finland. They aim for carbon neutrality by 2035. At the heart of that plan is their Green Electrification 2035 program. Business Finland launched the program in 2020, appointing ABB and other partners to create a new digital 5G electricity platform that will bring safe, reliable, and carbon-neutral electricity to all of Finland by 2035.

ABB will use that same platform concept in its partnership with UK Power Networks, adding enough electricity to power 1.4 million homes. That will also bring in more renewables, and save emissions equivalent to those from heating 6.5 million homes. That’s a major step towards making the UK net zero by 2050.

COP26

To make a policy shift towards renewables is easy. To make that work, we need to commit now to investing in the grid infrastructure to manage it.

But COP26 is not only about what governments can do. It’s about what we can do as citizens of the world. It’s about the way we drive and commute, and heat our homes. Together we can reach net zero, limit global warming to 1.5°, and make the world safer and better for our children and future generations.

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