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Is pure clean power a fantasy?

May 18, 2021

We are not on track to mitigate global warming, even with the pandemic drastically reducing emissions in 2020. One-hundred percent clean energy is possible because sources of wind and solar power are practically infinite and unit costs keep falling. With electrification, demand is predicted to soar as EVs, and electric heating become the norm and green hydrogen is called upon to even out supply. So, is 100 percent clean power a fantasy? What role can nuclear have in getting us to net zero? What mix of technology and policy will it take to reach escape velocity and leave fossil fuels behind?

At Capgemini, we’ve been observing energy markets for more than 20 years through the medium of our annual thought-leadership exercise: The World Energy Markets Observatory. As a company, we are deeply committed to the fight against climate change and we are acutely aware of the fact that energy use is responsible for 73% of the planet’s emissions.

Year after year, we have seen the surge of clean energy – solar and wind, of course – but other sector and digital technologies offer solutions to global warming as well: biogas, bio-fuels, storage, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, artificial intelligence, automation, IoT, etc.

Over time, we have seen a drastic decline in clean energy costs, which would have been totally unexpected and unpredictable 20 years ago. This decline creates a virtuous cyclical effect: prices decline when markets grow, initially boosted by subsidies, incentives, or appropriate economic signals (carbon taxes and related floor prices). As markets expand and technologies advance, prices diminish even further – a kind of Moore’s Law for wind and solar renewable technologies. As a result, solar and onshore wind LCOEs have become competitive in all markets with all other sources of electricity generation, except perhaps fully amortized hydro.

Pure clean power isn’t a fantasy. It will happen. It is just a matter of time.

The technical feasibility of 100% clean power can be seen in some countries.  However, achieving pure clean power everywhere will only be possible by solving multiple challenges. Let’s consider the six main challenges:

  • Challenge #1: X5 or X6, the clean energy capacity for today’s demand, X10 by 2050. Renewables account for about 20% of the generated electricity today (fossil fuels account for over 70%), notably in Europe. In some countries (Germany, Portugal, Scandinavia), this ratio is closer to ~40% to 60%. By 2050, electricity demand should double due to economic development and electrification (with significant growth in developing countries, and nearly flat demand in Europe and the US.) Who will support this investment? How long will it take to build related assets? To be clear, being 100% renewable powered means moving from 300bn pa investments in clean energy today to 2,500bn pa for 30 years.
  • Challenge #2: Public acceptance of solar and onshore wind invasion. Nobody wants a wind turbine in their backyard anymore, or significant landscape transformation’ while in some countries, there is a lack of land for solar development. Acceptance is better for offshore wind, but this is a less competitive clean source than onshore wind.
  • Challenge #3: Growing Smart Grid at scale. Existing electric grids were built to convey centralized generated electricity to the consumer in a one-way flow. Renewables, distributed, and intermittent sources require a different electric grid, one that should also be more resistant to the extreme weather conditions that are a consequence of global warming. Smart grids are feasible, as we have seen demonstrated by thousands of experiments all over the world. It is a huge investment. ~EUR1bn to EUR2bn per 10TWh transiting annually on a good existing electric grid, and 10 to 20 years to achieve it if you start today.
  • Challenge #4: Develop flexibility up to 30% to 50%. In a 100% clean power paradigm, production intermittency (power generated only when the wind is blowing, or the sun is shining) must be managed or the real-time load, demand balance will need a significant level of intelligence (smart grid) and flexibility. Various solutions to meet this challenge exist, including: storage, increased intermittent production predictability, demand – response, grid balancing advanced features (smart grid again), renewables hybridization (combining renewables with storage or hydrogen production), V2G – vehicle to grid, smart charging, smart heating, etc. The more (low carbon) dispatchable generation (nuclear for example), you can maintain, the less flexibility required (%).
  • Challenge #5: Conservation. Meeting a growing demand with more intermittent generations mean also developing energy efficiency (industry, buildings, electric transportation) and adopting energy-savvy consumption patterns. Younger generations (i.e., Greta Thunberg) in some countries may be ready for this. But it is vital that consumers and stakeholders also show the way, by defining national or local ways to conserve energy.
  • Challenge #6: Setting meaningful carbon prices to ensure clean energy competitiveness compared to fossil-fuel electricity generation. Certainly, the most efficient lever, as demonstrated in numerous simulators, and it has been considered from a political angle. Setting carbon prices is a political decision.

These six challenges must be met to transition to 100% clean power. We should consider the electricity costs on top of electricity generation (network management and flexibility, for example) that are not fully compensated by the declining cost of renewables.

Let’s take a glance at the consumer perspective of what needs to be done to achieve pure clean energy, beyond onshore wind and solar farms acceptance:

  • Becoming prosumers. A significant portion of consumers will also be producers (rooftop panels) or will bring their batteries (from Powerwall to EV batteries) to contribute to the electric system.
  • Participating in eco-friendly communities (green, local, engaged in the energy transition).
  • Influencing with their environmental policy votes. 
  • Accepting their responsibility to meet the load (shifting their energy usages to non-peak hours, being energy savvy – and in general adapting their lifestyles to fight climate change).
  • Voting with their wallets by paying more for green electricity.

Beyond renewables, many technologies can help meet net- zero targets

A recently published report by Capgemini Invent and Breakthrough Energy at European scale demonstrates this fact by taking a deeper look into the role the technologies will play.  In Europe, our research shows that these technologies (55 technologies covered in the report) can bridge the gap for 55% GHG reduction by 2030 and 100% by 2050.

The report also predicts a net economic value creation of EUR800bn and the creation of 12.6m jobs, from the development of these 55 technologies by 2030.

The main technologies contributing to decarbonation (at a European scale) are:

Nuclear can play a major role for the transition to 100% clean power.

Nuclear is a low-carbon dispatchable generation source (lower than or comparable to wind/solar emissions, if you consider the full cycle, rather than just the generation time) that will play a major role on the road to 100% clean power in nuclear-friendly countries.

Nuclear represents 10% of worldwide electricity generation in 2020. The IEA states that this level (10%) should remain stable until 2040, if 150 additional reactors are built (there are 455 today) or if SMR technology is leveraged.  Nuclear can clearly play a major role in the nuclear-friendly countries. Leveraging nuclear reduces the need for significant investments and limits the flexibility needed to ensure the security of supply within electric systems. There is also a concern of nuclear opponents that will work to have it banned in many countries.

Conclusion:  being 100% low carbon electricity is desirable and essential. It is already underway and unstoppable. But achieving it will take time.

It will take at least 10–20 years for the most  engaged states or countries to reach this point (with a bold roadmap), which means a progressively higher share of renewables in the electric mix – from 20% in average today to 100% at some point between 2040 and 2050. But this will not happen everywhere. California and Hawaii are fully committed to becoming 100% renewables powered, while Germany, Portugal and Scandinavia are the closest European contenders.  During the first 2020 lockdown, we saw a decrease in consumption and priority given to low-to-null-variable cost electricity production. As a result, we were in an unexpected situation, reaching 2025–2030 clean power forecasted levels. This endangered the stability of the European grid (in Germany, the UK, and Portugal, the situation was too complex to manage) with a share of renewables above 40%.

It will take most countries from 20 to 30 years, the political will power, and thousands of billions pa (globally) to meet the 100% clean power targets.

The first movers will be progressive countries that have political courage to endorse related transition costs and impacts. A nuclear / renewables mix would facilitate the transition. A global agreement followed by commitments and action plans is a must, but so is local engagement (territories, states, provinces, countries, regions).

We recommend starting the journey to pure clean power immediately.

Call to action

  • Politicians – Have the courage to enforce state climate change and push for a low carbon society. Show the way through regulations, reasonable carbon prices, actions on public demand and real estate, as well as a ‘sustainable development’ public programs that encourage call for action.
  • Consumers, Individual – Change your behavior, ban non-green electricity, and influence policies by making positive environmental choices – do not make any compromises.
  • Economic stakeholders and decision makers – Keep pushing forward and take the laggards with you. Large companies are paving the way with tangible demonstrated benefits.
  • Renewables developers, grid operators, financial institutions – Be bullish. Money is available to finance the projects, stock markets will applaud
  • Everyone – Accept any change for a better planet that leverages technical progress in any suitable dimensions.