The Growing Demand for Clean Electricity

The availability of abundant and affordable energy is directly linked to the quality of life. Energy consumption of 100 GJ or more per capita appears to be a precondition to achieving a high degree of human development (the United Nations Human Development Index includes measures such as life expectancy and years of schooling). This level of energy consumption is yet to be reached by 80% of the world’s population. Even worse, the World Bank estimates that one billion people, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, live their daily lives with minimal energy and entirely without electricity. The world will need a significantly increased energy supply in the future simply to meet the 100 GJ threshold, but also to address the many challenges arising from the climate crisis, such as the increasing needs for irrigation, desalination, and air conditioning. 

 Figure 1 – UN HDI versus per capita energy consumption based on 2011 data

At the same time, energy production and use is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. GHG emissions trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to climate change. Over 80% of primary energy consumption is from the burning of oil, gas, and coal. To avoid a climate disaster, scientists and experts tell us we need to reduce our emissions to net-zero by 2050. 

Figure 2 – Primary energy consumption

Figure 3 – Country’s energy flow

Electrification is a key part of decarbonizing our energy. Energy can be consumed and converted into electricity, heat, or transport fuels. Electricity is currently 20% of the total final consumption and is projected to account for 49% of the total final consumption by 2050. This growth, which could ultimately be much higher, will be the result of electrification as a crucial economy‐wide tool for reducing emissions. Electrification can potentially reduce emissions from the transportation, building, and industrial sectors, which together account for 63% of all US emissions.  Emissions from the transportation sector could be reduced by switching away from gasoline or diesel to electricity. Similarly, electrifying buildings involves replacing fossil fuels in heating, cooling, and hot water with electric equivalents. In industrial sectors, electricity can substitute fossil fuels in some key processes, such as heating required to produce glass, paper, steel, and cement.

Electrification alone, however, is not the solution. The electricity supply needs to come from clean, i.e., carbon emissions-free, sources. This is a colossal task as over 65% of the world’s electrical energy used today is generated by burning fossil fuels.

Figure 4 – Key electrification milestones needed to lower emissions

We need to balance clean electrification plans with the need for worldwide affordable and reliable sources. Renewable energy will play a leading role in the decarbonization transition due to the extraordinary cost improvements for wind and especially for solar. However, renewable sources are not always readily controllable (not “dispatchable” in the language of grid operators) or able to meet energy demand due to their intermittent nature. To compensate for that we need to have massive energy storage capacities, as well as overbuild generation capacity. The amount of storage and degree of overbuilding required grows significantly as the percentage of renewables on the grid increases. Both options are expensive and inefficient.

Figure 5 – Nonlinear increases in cost as renewable energy share in the electricity system increases

Thus, it is reasonable to expect that the ultimate electricity production mix will include technologies other than solar and wind. Experts, including the IPCC, recommend utilizing other sources to support and accelerate the low-carbon transition. To decarbonize the economy at a reasonable cost and timeline, the power sector must adopt the combined use of:

1) Renewable and zero marginal cost technologies (e.g., wind and solar)

2) Firm (i.e., uninterruptible) and dispatchable (i.e., on-demand) electricity supply technologies (e.g., nuclear power, natural gas with CCUS)

3) Energy storage to balance and manage energy supply and demand

These technology groups work together to establish a robust zero-carbon electricity system that is able to support an increasingly electrified economy across diverse regions.

We plan to explore other affordable and clean energy sources, including hydro, geothermal, modern bioenergy, hydrogen, fossil fuels with carbon capture, nuclear, and long-duration energy storage. In the meantime, we would love to meet anyone working on increasing access to clean and affordable electricity. If you’re a founder, expert, or non-profit innovating in this space, we are eager to hear from you.