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Working towards a united goal makes global climate action effective, writes Eurelectric’s Pat O’Doherty.

Climate action is the defining issue of our time – it is being discussed and debated in our homes, our educational institutions, boardrooms and in government. There is a clear realisation that fossil-based energy is a major part of the problem, and we need to find alternatives and solutions. There is consensus on the need to act quickly. More than 100 countries have committed to net zero economies in the next 30 years, and more are likely to join that list come COP26 in Glasgow in November.

When everyone is working towards the same goal it makes global cooperation possible and effective. As countries begin to examine the changes needed to meet their net-zero targets, it has become clear that unabated fossil fuels need to be virtually eliminated from our energy system.

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This has significant implications for individuals and communities in terms of how they consume energy: how they cook their meals, how they travel, and how they heat and cool their homes. We must turn commitments into reality and actions and show people that we are working towards a better future – one that is not only more sustainable but more convenient, comfortable, and efficient too. And we need to demonstrate clear plans on how we will get there. The EU has a significant programme of work underway to progress this, starting with the “Fit for 55” review expected soon.

Our friend electric

There are so many things we can do with a unit of electricity; we have only barely scratched the surface of its versatility so far. Electricity has been held back by artificially under-priced fossil fuels, so applications like transport and heating have not been electrified to the full. However, this has changed with recent advances in wind and solar energy and battery storage, along with the recognition that fossil fuels are destroying our environment.

I have seen numerous decarbonisation roadmaps from all over the world, and all highlight the importance of energy efficiency and electrification to meet our decarbonation targets. Practically every country envisages significant renewable electricity expansion, coupled with the deployment of ultraefficient technologies like electric heat pumps, district heating, electric vehicles etc.

In Europe, electricity accounts for approximately 20% of final energy demand; this must increase to 60% or more to meet net-zero in the most efficient way. This is entirely possible; electric and battery solutions are progressing to the the point that even compared with two years ago, there are fewer and fewer areas that can’t be electrified.

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Key enablers

While the potential is vast for electricity to decarbonise the world economy, it will not happen by itself. There are five key enablers that are required to support this transition:

  • Technology: We need electricity to displace fossil fuels across as many applications as possible. This means making existing technologies like wind solar and batteries cheaper and innovating further in the areas of EVs, heat pumps, electrolysis, storage, etc. We are seeing a pivot away from fossil-based technology by R&D departments, but this must be accelerated.
  • Digitisation: Data will be the lifeblood of a decarbonised electricity system. It is critical for matching demand with times of excess renewable electricity and ensuring that electricity is efficiently produced and available where and when it is needed. We will need strong protocols on data use and security, but I believe that this can be addressed by building these requirements in at the design stage.
  • Finance: The energy transition requires significant investment in areas where transitional financiers might not have ventured. We know that there are vast amounts of low-cost money in international markets, looking for a stable home. There are also significant low carbon value-adding investments that are needed. We need to ensure that the flow of money into low carbon projects is seamless; Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria, green bond standards and low carbon taxonomies will play a vital role in this.
  • Regulation: We need regulators to support the transition to low carbon energy systems, to drive out barriers to electrification, and ensure the most efficient use of the power system. Currently, regulatory barriers to electrification, such as the structure of system charges, need to be addressed. Suppliers’ business models will have to evolve so that they can support customers to live low carbon lives through new product offerings and incentives; the regulatory framework must support this.
  • Distribution System Operator (DSO): Electricity DSOs must evolve their traditional operating models to meet customer and decarbonisation requirements. They will be required to balance the need to reinforce the distribution network and accommodate as much flexibility as possible through load shifting and non-wires solutions. They will also need to facilitate local flexibility marketplaces, where they can procure their own system needs and embedded services required by the TSO. It is therefore key that we secure sufficient investment into our grids over the next decade investment needs being estimated to €375-425 billion by 2030).

Not every part of the low carbon transition is known or mapped out, but as technology advances, more elements of the pathway will become clear. However, electrification is a certainty and many of the enabling technologies already exist. We must get to work now, working together to maximise impact and accelerate the global shift to a brighter, healthier and more sustainable future. I look forward to discussing this and many other important climate topics at the upcoming Eurelectric Power Summit.

Eurelectric’s Power Summit (25-28 May 2021)
The Power Summit will host 12 public sessions on the most pressing issues facing the European power sector. From gaps in investment to jumps in innovation, persistent challenges to new opportunities, the Power Summit will explore the energy transition from every angle.
For details and to register your place, visit: powersummit2021.eurelectric.org

About the author

Pat O’Doherty

Pat O’Doherty is President of Eurelectric. He was made chief executive of Irish energy company ESB in 2011 and appointed to the ESB board in 2013.