Technology the answer for low-carbon power sector

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - A report released at the Copenhagen climate change summit by the International Electricity Partnership shows that low-emission electricity can be delivered by 2050, as long as government policies are fully supportive of the necessary changes.

The International Electricity Partnership was formed in 2007 and comprises the Energy Supply Association of Australia, the Canadian Electricity Association, Eurelectric, the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, and the Edison Electric Institute of the U.S.

The partnership was formed to deliver advanced electric technologies to create a global low-carbon future. They've stated that they believe that electricity can be the solution to climate change and that new technology, with an adequate transition period, can stabilize carbon emissions from all sources. With aggressive application of technology, carbon emissions reductions of 60% to 80% can be achieved by 2050.

The report, called the "Roadmap for Low Carbon Power Sector by 2050," examined the present structure of the power sector in Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan and the United States, and the technologies that are used for the generation and transmission of electricity.

The work of the partnership shows that deep emission reductions are achievable with the development and application of new technology, an adequate transition period to change over the necessary generation and network equipment, vastly improved end-use efficiency and supportive government policies. The report also finds that there is a need to align the emission-reduction targets with the roadmap to low-emission technologies.

Emission reductions will be required from every sector of the economy. The report concludes that low-emission electricity will find new and diverse applications, including personal transport via electric vehicles; the increased electrification of expanding public transport systems; water provision via desalination; and highly efficient space heating and cooling using advanced heat pumps.

The technical and economic feasibility of deploying low-emission electricity generation will be dependent on advanced networks that enable informed end-user consumption choices. The supply and end-use technologies that can result in very deep reductions in emissions will not be commercially deployable before 2025, limiting the extent to which emission reductions can be secured.

At first glance, the scientific and technological timescales appear to be incompatible; given that emissions need to peak by 2020, it will not be possible to build any significant low-carbon capacity by then. Nuclear plants take some 10 to 20 years to permit and construct, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) for coal-fired plants will not be commercially available until 2020 at the earliest. It also will need at least a decade to permit and build the transmission and distribution infrastructure to allow the operation of significant quantities of renewables.

These considerations lead to the conclusion that it will be at least 2020 before there can be significant deployment of low-carbon generating technologies. The construction of significant quantities of new gas-fired combine-cycle gas turbines (CCGT) may enable the short-term CO2 and generation capacity targets to be met but will cause long-term security of supply issues and may require in some countries the fitting of CCS to these plants in the medium term. Since most of the present capacity will need to be replaced before 2050 it may be possible to reach the 2050 target earlier. This later peaking coupled with earlier achievement of the 2050 objective probably would still enable the climate target to be met for the power sector, since the later peaking would be offset by the more rapid reduction rate after 2020.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) in its "World Energy Outlook 2009" (WEO 2009) makes an in-depth analysis of climate policies and develops a climate scenario consistent with limiting the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 450-parts-per-million CO2 equivalent. This scenario analyses measures in the energy sector which might be taken to fulfill a coordinated global 450 parts per million commitment. It should be emphasized that neither this global commitment nor the policies to achieve it are presently in place.

The "Reference Scenario" in WEO 2009 takes into account government policies and measures adopted by mid-2009, and gives a picture of how global energy markets would evolve if governments were to make no further changes to their existing policies.

The scenario uses a combination of policies and commitments, including cap-and-trade, sectoral agreements and national policies, most of which have not been agreed upon at national, regional or international levels and it is therefore highly dependent on political developments and investment.

On a global basis, the scenario postulates that by 2020, relative to 2007:

• a 6% global increase in energy related CO2 emissions;

• power generation CO2 intensity decreasing by 23%;

• car fleet CO2 intensity decreasing by 37%;

• increase of 3% in emissions from buildings;

• increase of 9% in industrial emissions.

To stabilize and then reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, with the long-term objective of substantial decarbonization, needs supply-side transformation, including the development of smart and robust grids for efficient power transmission/distribution and the integration of distributed power sources, and dramatic energy savings through improvements in end-use energy efficiency and reductions in fossil fuel combustion by promoting electric use.

End-use energy efficiency improvements mean that fewer resources are consumed and emissions are avoided. Integrated building design, with the development and deployment of high-efficiency electric cooling and heating devices, lighting systems and electric appliances, will buy time for cleaner, more efficient generation technologies to be brought online.

A recent report (WBCSD) shows that in the building sector alone, which accounts for 40% of global energy use and where electrification could play an important role, more than 40% emission reductions are achievable at relatively affordable cost with existing technologies if appropriate policies and measures are introduced or strengthened.

The IEA has shown that higher levels of electrification, particularly in the fields of building heating/cooling and transportation, where fossil fuel combustion will be displaced by the use of heat pump and hybrid/electric vehicle technologies, can substantially reduce emissions.

An array of technologies and designs has been developed to support the more efficient use of electricity. Many of these, such as insulation, double-glazed windows, solar water heating in certain countries and compact florescent lamps, are mature, competitive and cost-effective. Other highly efficient technologies, such as heating and cooling heat-pump technologies, are in an early deployment phase. Their substitution for conventional heating and cooling combustion technologies will result in substantial saving in primary energy and CO2 emissions. Zero net energy houses are increasingly entering the market.

Other technologies, such as high-temperature heat-pump systems (used for steam production in industrial processes), require further research and development to achieve commercial deployment. Solid-state lighting technologies are rapidly developing in efficiency and lifespan, but are still more costly than conventional solutions. The advancement of sensor and control technologies, together with smart meters, could further enhance energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency measures have been proven the most cost-effective in terms of CO2 mitigation and possess significant potential. Although there are technological challenges for energy efficiency technologies to overcome for further deployment (batteries for plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, and high-temperature heat pumps), non-technological barriers especially need to be addressed. These include high transaction costs and market and behavioural barriers, which have proven to be challenging to overcome.

There is a substantial need for very significant investment both to replace the aging fleet of thermal and nuclear plants and to meet new demand in developed countries. In developing countries, the need for more building to meet the rapidly growing energy demands as their economies grow is even more significant. This leads to growth in emissions in developing countries, which makes the reduction of global emissions a difficult political issue.

What this report has shown is that it is possible for to deliver low-carbon power by 2050 though intelligent and efficient electricity generation, transmission, distribution and use.


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