The World's Next Energy Systems

MIN READAug 23, 2016 | 09:16 GMT

The World's Next Energy Systems
Wind turbines are just one of the competing technologies that can reduce emissions and contribute to a global energy transition.



Nearly a year ago, almost 200 countries signed a pledge to limit greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in the Paris agreement of 2015. On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21, there will be a special meeting to encourage the signatory nations to complete the domestic legislation necessary to formally ratify the agreement. If the required 55 countries (accounting for 55 percent of the world's emissions) approve the deal by Oct. 7, it will go into effect before the next global meeting in Marrakech in November. Since the agreement opened for signatures in April, however, only 22 nations have ratified it. Moreover, the Paris agreement, while lauded for its progressiveness and transparency, still has no punitive measures for countries failing to meet their stated targets. Without consequence for failure, countries are less likely to reach their climate change goals. So how will the world actually begin to significantly reduce its emissions? 

In addition to policies such as the Paris agreement, economics and scientific breakthroughs will alter the world's energy makeup. Even developing countries, which will soon be responsible for much of the world's growth in energy consumption, will eventually be able to transition to new forms of energy, depending on how the world's technological leaders disseminate their knowledge. In recent months, several developments in emerging technologies with a role in reducing emissions have already happened. The world is moving, albeit gradually, toward a new energy system where oil no longer plays the crucial role it once did.

Paris Agreement Progress

Despite the enthusiastic and near-unanimous response to the global climate accord last December, the legislative wheels of ratification appear to be moving slowly. If all the countries that publicly pledged to formalize by the end of the year follow through on that promise, then the agreement will be close to its required benchmarks of 55 countries and a 55 percent cut in global emissions. But many of the nations that have ratified the agreement so far are small island countries, and together, they account for only 1.08 percent of total global emissions.

In June, France became one of the first industrialized countries to validate the agreement, and Hungary also ratified it. But because the European Union plans to submit formal ratification as a bloc, the two countries are not part of the official U.N. count of 22 nations. Given all the moving parts in the 28-country bloc — such as post-Brexit policies and immigration concerns — EU ratification may not happen until 2017.

Though other large countries, including Ukraine and Brazil, have made steps toward formal ratification in recent weeks, their approval will not ensure their compliance or guarantee that they hit their stated national emission targets. For example, Norway ratified the agreement in June, but its emissions rose in 2015. Moreover, many larger emitting nations will hold elections over the next several years. National sentiment toward emission goals could change, and because there are no consequences outlined in the Paris agreement, there would be little backlash for noncompliance.

Better Living Through Science

Beyond the uncertainties of policy, technology will drive the global energy transition from traditional energy sources such as oil, natural gas or coal. Furthermore, the reduction of emissions will require technologies that improve efficiency and performance of all power sources and the technologies consuming them. Technologies could also contribute to decreasing energy use overall.

Of course, scientific discoveries and research can take years or even decades to become commercial products. Still, the breakthroughs are numerous. Improved or novel battery designs, for example, could eventually succeed the current industry standard, lithium-ion batteries. Existing technology could also be deployed on a larger scale. Tesla's Gigafactory, which will produce batteries on a massive scale to bring down costs, formally opened in July and is already producing batteries. It will be an important test case for just how quickly the cost of batteries can drop using economies of scale, providing crucial information for electric vehicles and large-scale grid storage. Similarly, in July the city of Los Angeles announced its intention to replace a major peaking power plant, which generally runs only in times of peak demand, with the world's largest battery storage system by 2021.

For these batteries and corresponding advancements to contribute to reducing fossil fuel demand growth, though, alternative energy sources need to be more widely adopted. Wind turbine capacity has grown by 180 percent over the past eight years, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Energy, making turbines increasingly competitive with traditional and other alternative forms of energy, including solar. Costs for solar and wind technologies have already dropped significantly over the past five to 10 years. Even so, recent studies indicate that solar costs will have to fall further as more solar capacity is incorporated into the grid. 

Manufacturing solar cells is difficult, and defects in the manufacturing process can lower efficiency and performance. Still, improved manufacturing techniques are being developed. Since 2009, the performance of perovskite cells — a general term to describe cells with a structure combining organic and inorganic materials — has improved steadily. In July, Korean scientists reported a technique to improve the stability and durability of cells. The next month, the U.S. Department of Energy, in collaboration with a Chinese team, reported a new technique to repair defects that occur during the manufacturing process while increasing efficiency and reproducibility. Developments such as these are key to the potential success of perovskite solar cells.

Other alternative sources have advanced as well. Multiple wave power projects in Australia launched in 2015, including the world's first commercial-scale wave generating plant. Nuclear reactors will also likely play a role in the diversified energy sphere; in the past year, the United Kingdom and the United States announced investment plans in advanced nuclear research, including small modular reactors. Japan is also reviving its nuclear program slowly, and other countries, namely China, will seek to increase their traditional nuclear capacity, too.

Electric vehicles, spurred by battery advancements, will have to compete with cars using fuel cells, which use hydrogen to produce electricity and emit water. For example, the Toyota Mirai, first sold in 2015, is a slightly more affordable option for fuel cell-powered cars, although costs would still need to decrease and infrastructure expand for more widespread adoption. Automation will also play a large role in reducing emissions. With continued improvements in artificial intelligence, smart grids, self-driving vehicles and the internet of things in general, the efficiency of energy use — regardless of the source — will improve.

Policy can certainly promote alternative energy sources with subsidies and incentives or even emission requirements. But the technological developments that make these sources more efficient and cheaper will drive sustained incorporation even further. This year alone, various technologies that can contribute to cutting emissions and increasing efficiency have made notable advancements. Continued development in several competing technologies will contribute to the global energy transition in the years to come.

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