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Moving Toward One Energy Future

By Barny Evans, Associate Director, Waste & Renewables, UK

2016 may be the year when the world realized there will be only one energy future when consensus about carbon emissions reductions was formed among the nations participating in the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris. Although some countries did not reach carbon emissions reduction targets, each has committed to a low carbon future.

How can we achieve this? There are two possible levers:

1) Increase the use of energy-efficient products or production methods,

2) Increase the use of low /zero-carbon energy sources.

Many milestones in renewable energy have been reached in the past few years. For example, the delivered cost of renewable energy, in many cases, is now cheaper than energy delivered from fossil-fuel sources; and the amount of renewable energy capacity additions now exceeds non-renewable capacity additions.

Moreover, although the global economy grew by about 3% in 2015, global energy-related carbon emissions did not grow at all, according to the International Energy Agency. Some of this is due to efficiency and the slow-down in China’s economy, but the main source is the change in our energy supply with more renewables and a switch from coal to natural gas.

Explosion in Renewable Energy Production

It is important to understand the speed of change we have witnessed in the past ten years. In 2004, there was around 3 GW of global solar power installed. There is now over 200 GW. For wind power, we have gone from 48 GW to more than 400 GW in the same time period. This shows how it is important that we maintain flexibility in order to adjust to and benefit from new technologies.

So what should we expect for renewables in 2016?

What is clear is that the centre of gravity for renewable energy deployment has switched from Europe, which has historically led the way, to other parts of the world. Southeast Asia, and in particular China, are presently deploying solar and wind power at incredible rates. In the USA, the extension of tax credits is projected to foment rapid growth in solar and wind energy production over the next four to six years. And while India and the Middle East are areas where carbon emissions are rising fast, they are sleeping giants since both have massive renewable energy plans.

Despite the relative decline in new renewable energy production in Europe until 2020, OECD countries are actually expected to reduce non-renewable energy sources, even though their overall energy demand is supposed to increase. This means that energy will be supplied increasingly from renewables.

Renewables Are Getting Cheaper

In many parts of the world, we will also see a big step forward as the renewable sector achieves unsubsidized price parity in more and more geographies, and then undercuts non-renewable energy prices. This is already happening in some places.  For example, the United Arab Emirates has just seen solar power offered at less than $0.06 USD per kilowatt hour, without subsidy, albeit without balancing costs.

This is good news for consumers and governments, but it also means that societies will need to manage changes in their infrastructure. Up to now, energy supply has generally been controlled by governments, monopolies or oligopolies. However, because renewable power can be generated at small –as well as large- scale, we can all become producers and consumers. This new world of prosumers will require a much more responsive and intelligent management of the market.

However, as renewables deployment increases, countries or regions may be unable to use all the renewable energy they are generating; or renewable energy production may not be sufficient when needed. Local production, demand management, and energy storage can solve these problems.

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has the ability to combine vision and analysis with engineering; whether that is working with a company or country to guide their energy future or overseeing a new solar farm.

The Impact of Better Energy Storage

Energy storage also holds promises, mainly in the form of batteries. In developed countries, the opportunity is to resolve the challenge posed by intermittent renewables, as they become an ever more significant source of power on electrical grids.

In developing countries, the opportunity is even more exciting. In a similar way that mobile telephony allowed regions to bypass wired communication and leap-frog directly to wireless, energy storage allows the potential for sites and regions to have 100% renewable power without connection to a wider grid.

Up to now energy storage has been too expensive, but 2016 may be the year we see energy storage move into the mainstream. In sub-Saharan Africa, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is looking at solar energy and wind energy with battery storage to actually deliver lower-cost energy than can be produced by a diesel power energy system. This result is possible while also delivering all the environmental benefits that come with renewables.

We are working with consumers, investors, and suppliers across the globe to achieve these same exciting results in ever-widening geographies as renewable energy production and energy storage are more and more economically competitive with non-renewable energy.

It is possible to produce renewable energy at a competitive cost. It is possible to store that energy in order to optimize its usage. We are moving toward one energy future.