Renewables alone aren’t enough to meet climate targets. How can we really save emissions?

Thursday, September 26, 2019 4:03 pm EDT

By:

Lisa Davis, Member of the Managing Board of Siemens AG and CEO Gas and Power

[Editor’s note] Every three years, the World Energy Congress provides the global industry and politics with an exceptional opportunity to discuss and ally on the significant shifts in energy. Siemens attended to be part of this essential discussion. Below is a condensed version of Lisa Davis’ keynote speech on what practical actions we must take to pursue decarbonization.

For the past two decades, a movement has been growing across the globe to reduce harmful emissions and slow climate change, and rightly so. We see wildfires in Greenland and Siberia and hurricanes far greater in number and severity, as recently experienced with Dorian in the Bahamas and Maria in Puerto Rico. Nature has made abundantly clear that we must act.

Yet, at the same time, economic growth and population growth are accelerating energy demand and pressuring climate change in the opposite way. Today, more than one billion people live without electricity. They have every right to garner the economic benefits that an electrified world offers, and yet we must manage fully the environmental impact of increased energy demand.

That’s the challenge for the energy industry, for politics and for societies. The pace of government commitments, however, is failing to meet the Paris Agreement goals, and rather leading to a 2.5-degree or higher rise in temperatures. The collective response to that has been a call for the expansion and integration of renewables, an essential act. But renewables alone won’t be enough to meet critical targets. They are not a complete answer to addressing climate change.

We cannot abandon existing systems, or strand current assets, before having new systems up and running. If we do, we will not only drive up costs but also put at risk the stability and reliability of energy systems around the world. However, C02 neutrality must be the target for all elements of the energy system including the existing base that we have in operation today. Only in this way can we hope to meet the Paris agreement targets.

How do we do this? Here’s the practical approach, in three steps. 

First, we must shift from coal use to natural gas. This is not a new idea but well known for the gains in efficiency it brings. Replacing a coal-fired plant’s original boiler with a gas turbine and a heat recovery steam generator reduces a facility’s specific CO2 emissions by up to 70% per kilowatt. This approach contributes substantially to decreasing emissions, giving us good reason to pursue it.

According to the international energy agency, coal-to-gas switching prevented almost 60 metric tons of coal demand, helping to avert 95 metric tons of CO2 emissions. That’s a huge win. And it prepares the ground for progressing to further, possibly full decarbonization by enabling these power plants to be fueled with green hydrogen in the future.

Second, we need to invest in making existing power systems greener. We can do this by improving efficiency and also through enabling the use of hydrogen in our systems. This entails, at the start, retrofitting or modernizing existing assets with the most efficient and newest technology, enhancing their value and lowering their emissions while they’re in use.

Small, out-of-the-box, transportable gas turbines can replace the less-efficient diesel generators that are usually deployed on difficult terrain, and there are even floating installations for coast-line cities. Gas and steam turbines can be upgraded, optimized in operation, or exchanged, retaining and up-valuing much of the existing infrastructure.

Hybrid solutions are the next step in this evolution. These solutions integrate different technologies, such as gas power combined with batteries or solar, within a single power plant. This delivers multiple benefits, offering reliable, flexible solutions that are optimized to not waste any power that can be kept in the system.

Third, we must aim for a deep decarbonization of our systems, primarily by enabling sector coupling. Countries’ goals to reach CO2 neutrality by 2050 may sound comfortably distant, but work on those goals begins today for every asset with a lifespan that extends near to, or exceeds, this date. Ultimately, our goal is to apply green, CO2-neutral energy throughout the entire system; and to deploy it in the most efficient and integrated means. 

As we’re looking for the share of renewable power to be increased, we’re really looking for it to be applied throughout all energy sectors—power, heating, mobility, and so on. Electrification, for one, will be a core element in linking these sectors with renewable energy. Smart infrastructures are connecting all parts of the ecosystem; proactive consumers are able to provide flexible load or even storage capacities. The batteries of your Tesla may come to mind, for example. But it also works with Power-to-Heat: hot water is a medium that stores energy very well. By integrating energy sectors this way, the fluctuations of wind and solar power are compensated with their own electricity surpluses.

These are three steps we can embark upon today to make the significant and much-needed change we will need to see this industry through into the next decades while walking more lightly on the environment.We need to refocus our attention now, today, on ALL the ways we can reach our goal of decarbonization and ultimately reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. We are facing opportunities for CO2 neutrality and efficiency along the entire energy value chain. A true energy transition requires an all-of-the-above approach, an approach that considers the existing system and installed base, an approach that considers the transition to cleaner fuels, and an approach that considers the efficient use of the full energy infrastructure across generating, transmitting, converting, storing, and applying energy.  

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