Why I’m hopeful about the energy transition in 2020

If you knew, 10 years ago, how the next 10 years would play out in the energy sector, would you be happy with the progress that has been made?

This question has been on my mind as we reach the end of 2020.

What has prompted this introspection is that I realised I’ve been working in the sector for 10 years now. I can clearly remember what it was like when I joined as a wide-eyed MSc student. Plus a decade is a nice, even block of time within which to review progress.

Spoiler alert (the title of this post kind of gives it away), I am optimistic about where we stand today.

Here is why.

Electric Vehicles

10 years ago, there were two ‘G-Wiz’ electric vehicles in my college campus. They were boxy little 2 seaters, with similar dimensions to a bumper car. It looked like the car would be the one in trouble if it collided with a bicycle. I never actually saw anyone driving one, but I was comforted by the idea that, out there somewhere, were people so committed that they would sacrifice every other driving convenience in the quest for zero tailpipe emissions.

Fast forward 10 years and you cannot step outside your home without seeing an EV. Everyone is aware of the rise of Tesla (and its share price), but it is worth taking a moment to think about how far they have come in the past decade. Back in 2010, Tesla had sold fewer than 1,500 models of the Tesla Roadster. In 2020 alone, they will have delivered close to half a million EVs. Tesla’s electric-only strategy has paid off spectacularly. At the time of writing, Tesla had become the most valuable car company in the world.

From a near standing start in 2010, global EV sales have grown to 2.3 million in 2020. There is, of course, still a long way to go. EVs still only account for 2–3% of new cars on the road. However, the direction of travel (pun not resisted) is clear. The UK has just announced a ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030. UK pedestrians and motorists will be in good company. At latest count, 17 countries including India, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, The Netherlands and Sweden will have similar bans in place by 2030. California, and much of the USA will follow in 2035. And Norway, ever the teacher’s pet, will be looking slightly bored at the front of the class, having banned the sale of petrol engines in 2025.

Solar Power

Solar PV wasn’t exactly a new technology in 2010. It played a vital role in the space programs of the 1960s. Yet 50 years later, PV still a marginal contributor to the world’s electricity grids. In 2010, less than 0.01% of the UK’s electricity came from solar. Germany, one of the world’s leaders in PV deployment, had only managed to get to 2%, and the global average was a mere 0.16%.

Fast forward to 2020, and the technology is essentially the same; module efficiency hasn’t radically improved; subsidies have dried up, and yet solar is booming. There is now over 100 times more solar capacity in the UK than there was 10 years ago. In Australia, it grew from near zero to 7% of the electricity mix. Why the sudden growth? The simple reason is that the cost of energy from solar PV has fallen by 89% in the past 10 years. Solar is now the cheapest form of new energy in most of the world. If you knew this back in 2010, you would have to be pleased.

Where will solar be in another 10 years? One thing you can predict is that it will cost a fraction of what it costs today. The learning rate for solar means that with each doubling of capacity, the price of modules drops an average of 20%. The more we install, the cheaper it gets. Trying to imagine what the world of energy will be like in another 10 years feels a bit like imagining the changes that would come about from the falling costs of computing back in the 1990s.

Wind Power

Wind power was also a marginal technology back in 2010. The share of the world’s electricity coming from wind was then 1.6%. The UK, a relatively early starter, was getting 2.7% of its electricity from wind. Ireland was approaching 10%, and Denmark, the world’s leader, was blazing a trail for us all at 20%.

The following 10 years has seen a steady increase in capacity and reduction in cost. In the UK, the cost reductions have led to a marked change in policy. In 2015, the Government banned onshore wind, betting on nuclear instead. Five years later, the decision was reversed, as the cost of onshore wind had fallen by 70% in the previous decade. Just last month, Boris Johnson announced he’d become an evangelist, championing the UK as ‘the Saudi Arabia of wind’. There is a lot to be confident about. Last year, the UK got 20% of its electricity from wind, Ireland reached over 30%, and Denmark was past the 50% mark.

The two things you can predict about wind power’s future is that the costs will get lower and wind turbines will get larger. The learning rates for onshore and offshore wind are 10% and 23% respectively. Ten years ago, wind turbines were about the size of Tower Bridge, now the largest are the size of The Shard (or the Eiffel Tower, if you prefer croissants to scones). And it’s not just the turbines that are getting bigger. Wind farms are growing in size too. The world’s largest wind farm — a project in Ganzu province China has a planned capacity of 20 GW — close to the entire current wind capacity of the UK.

Energy Storage

In an entire year of studying Environmental Technologies back in 2010, I can’t remember reading more than a paragraph on battery storage. It just wasn’t a big thing — except for a few of the more prescient among us. Why worry about storing energy when there was hardly any intermittent energy to store? The change, came for me when I moved to Australia in the middle of the decade. Solar was on a roll and people were thinking about using this energy late in the evenings to manage peak loads. Early pioneers used lead-acid batteries from cars and trucks, but the real change came with Lithium-ion.

Steady progression is easy for organisations to manage, but as Tim Harford notes, they are prone to stumble with disruptive technologies. Kodak’s structure enabled it to dominate as print photography improved, but it famously struggled when the technology moved digital. In the past 5 or so years, energy companies have had to understand everything that is involved in testing, selling and installing what is essentially a mini-power plant in the family home. Fast forward a few years and Virtual Power Plants are connecting to thousands of distributed batteries.

Utility-scale batteries are growing even faster than in the residential space. The trend, as always, is towards larger capacity and lower cost. In 2018, Tesla made headlines by building the largest battery in the world in South Australia — capable of 100 MW of power (enough to power over 30,000 homes). It was quickly dwarfed by the Gateway Power project (near San Diego) in 2019 with 250 MW capacity. This year, UK-based InterGen received planning permission for 320 MW of batteries near London. You can see where this is going. Good news for anyone that likes big infrastructure projects.

Disappointments

Not everything has met expectations. Some technologies climbed Gartner’s peak of inflated expectations only to wallow in the trough of disillusionment. Hydrogen cars, bio-fuels, tidal energy, solar tiles, building integrated PV, salt storage, air storage, and blockchain — we are looking at you.

Here are three that stick in my mind:

Nuclear Power

Firstly, let me say that I am open-minded about Nuclear power. I started the last decade being against it for environmental reasons, and in favour of it for cost reasons. Based on what I have seen over the past 10 years, I am now pro-Nuclear for carbon reasons and anti-Nuclear for cost reasons.

More than a decade ago, EDF promised that Britons would be cooking their Christmas turkeys with power from a new nuclear plant in 2017. This year we learned that Hinkley Point C costs have overrun by up to £2.9 Billion and it is not expected to provide electricity until 2025. This sums it up for me.

Smart Meters

One of the simplest, transformative technologies when I joined the sector was smart meters. In 2011, the UK government mandated a roll out of smart meters in every home by 2020. Last year, the UK government pushed back the deadline by four years until 2024. It feels like a missed opportunity. In 2020, the average household is no more informed about when they use electricity, nor are they aware of the few hours a year when prices go through the roof.

Smart Homes

Its hard to overstate the hype around Smart Homes 10 years ago. Nest was bought by Google for $3.2 billion and every household device was soon to be connected and optimised. Whilst there have been some genuinely good products in the past few years, many devices have become ‘smart’ because they can be, not because customers want them to be. My washing machine can be controlled from my phone for those days — I assume — when I want to load it up and then run straight back to bed before pressing the ‘on’ button.

Conclusion

Amidst all the gloom of 2020, this post is intentionally optimistic. Compared with 10 years ago, we can be more confident the tools exist to get us to zero. However, it would be wrong to give the impression we are anywhere close to reaching that goal.

Every year in the past decade, we have released a new record amount of carbon into the atmosphere, except in 2020. Global emissions are expected to drop by 7% in 2020 due to the impact of COVID-19. According to the UNEP, this is the same amount of reductions that are required every subsequent year for us to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Science tells us very clearly that we have a decade to completely change our use of natural resources. If we don’t do this by 2030, we will have irreversibly damaged the planet.

But, among all the news stories of 2020, there were a few headlines that gave genuine hope. This year, for the first time in 134 years, Americans used more electricity created from renewables than from coal. In Europe, renewables surpassed fossil fuels on the power grid, for the first time ever. Worldwide, Clean Energy jobs grew in the midst of a global pandemic.

Here is to better things in 2021!

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