Five steps to a carbon free future

6 min read

10 Jan 2022

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Joanna Sinclair

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Wärtsilä

6 min read

10 Jan 2022

Text:

Joanna Sinclair

Photo:

Wärtsilä

Imagine the day when we can all safely say that the climate is on the road to recovery. When all electricity is sustainably produced with optimised power systems. At Wärtsilä, a 100% renewable energy future is top-of-mind every day. How can the world get there? Wärtsilä Energy outlined a five-step plan.

Experts at Wärtsilä Energy have modelled the necessary steps for building fully renewable electricity systems, and the results are similar everywhere in the world. The pace to achieve this may differ from one region or country to the next – but the technologies to obtain a net zero tomorrow already exist.

“In our recent report, Front-loading Net Zero, we demonstrate how quickly shifting towards decarbonised energy systems would help mitigate the climate emergency and simultaneously cut electricity costs around the world,” says Antti Alahäivälä, General Manager of Business Development at Wärtsilä Energy.

“We summarised the milestones required to achieve net zero into a 5-step plan that is applicable to every region of the world,” Alahäivälä adds.


 

Step 1 is already a reality in many regions

Wärtsilä Energy’s 5-step plan is based on extensive energy transition modelling. The plan includes: 1) adding renewables, 2) adding flexibility through thermal balancing and storage, 3) phasing out inflexible plants, 4) converting to sustainable fuels, and 5) phasing out fossil fuels.

“Today, many countries have already reached step 1, where solar and wind energy make up close to 20% of the electricity mix. In certain inspiring regions renewable penetration is even higher,” Alahäivälä describes.

“This is great news. Just five years ago, development at this speed would have seemed implausible. But as renewable energy has reached price parity – meaning that it is competitive not only with new but also the existing fossil capacity – it has become increasingly popular. In many regions, wind and solar power are now the cheapest and fastest growing ways to produce electricity,” he continues. 

Alahäivälä underlines that not only is net zero fully feasible with current technologies, but it is also affordable.

“Renewable energy systems are low maintenance, cost efficient and predictable when paired with smart energy management software systems. Investing in renewables can be seen as purchasing ‘unlimited’ power up-front,” he reminds.

“The transition from fossil-based generation towards renewable electricity will not increase the cost of electricity in comparison to today. In some regions, the price of electricity can fall as much as 50% once the shift to renewables has been achieved,” he adds.  

 

Step 2 requires front-loaded investments

To reach step 2 – adding flexibility through thermal balancing and storage – countries and regions around the world must build conditions that enable investments in energy storage systems and flexible power plants.

We need energy storage and flexible power plants to create the flexibility required to allow even greater renewable penetration.

“We cannot add much more than 20% of solar and wind power to our grids without supplementing it with other sources of flexible generation. The reason is simple: energy from renewable sources is always intermittent. The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow,” Alahäivälä says.

The solution is adding both long-term and short-term energy storage systems and energy balancing from, for example, flexible power plants, and fast starting and loading engines that can run on carbon-free future fuels. Ideally this flexibility will also be combined with sector coupling, i.e., interconnecting the power producing sector with energy consuming sectors such as transport and industry. 

Alahäivälä affirms that although achieving flexibility requires front-loaded investments, the payback can be expected fairly fast.

“Fossil energy is becoming more and more expensive. The faster we move to renewables, the faster we can retire fossils. This will bring stability, as there will be no need to fret about fluctuating oil prices and increasing environmental regulation,” he explains.

“Moreover, the cost of the front-loaded investments required to achieve flexibility may not be as high as many assume. Energy storage, for example, has become much more affordable in recent years. Especially short-term storage is already quite reasonably priced,” he points out.

 

Step 3 can be reached within 5-8 years

The global energy sector will certainly move from fossil-based systems of energy production towards more optimised and flexible power systems. The main question is how soon this will happen.

“The faster we advance, the quicker we can create a positive cycle, where it will be safe to add more and more renewable energy sources to our systems and start phasing out fossils,” Alahäivälä remarks.

Time is of the essence. Wärtsilä Energy’s 5-step plan for front-loading net zero outlines that the first three major advancements must be achieved within the next 5-8 years.

We need to reach step 3 – phasing out inflexible plants – within this time span to deliver the near-term emissions reductions that are critical for holding the global temperature rise to 1.5C°.

“I am confident that many regions could reach step 2 fairly soon and step 3 within 5-8 years. Renewable energy subsidies started the positive development, and now it is already market driven,” Alahäivälä says.  

“Step 3 will be a major milestone. Once we have enough renewable output, and sufficient flexibility brought forth by battery storage and flexible power plant capacity, we can retire legacy inflexible plants,” he envisions.

 

Steps 4 and 5 are attainable for every region in the world

Wärtsilä’s Front-loading Net Zero report introduces findings from power system modelling conducted in California, India, and Germany, but all in all Wärtsilä has conducted similar modelling for well over 150 countries and power systems around the world, outlining the best cost-optimal path to a smooth energy transition.

“Our power system modelling and on-the-ground experience show that every region of the world can achieve a cost optimal path to a smooth energy transition, regardless of where they are now,” Alahäivälä emphasises. 

“Major progress is already taking place all around the globe in numerous regions, such as Chile, Texas, and the UK, just to name a few examples,” he adds.

To achieve steps 4 and 5 – converting to sustainable future fuels such as green hydrogen and synthetic methane; and phasing out fossil fuels entirely – we need to make the right changes towards a decarbonised world now.

“There is no need to wait and every reason to act. All the technologies needed to achieve global net zero electricity generation are already available at scale,” Alahäivälä confirms.

“The transition to a renewable energy future is accelerating at a remarkable rate. The work ahead of us remains substantial, but the outcome will be well worth every effort. A day in our not-so-distant-future, when global warming has been limited to 1.5C°,” he concludes.