Will renewables really be at the heart of the post-COVID recovery, or are recent political commitments just more unhelpful emissions?

Our Business Development Manager, Donald Speirs, shares his thoughts on how the coming year will unfold.

Renewables to flourish – but more is needed

The COP26 summit in November, postponed from last year due to COVID-19, will be held in Glasgow in November with the stated aim of accelerating ‘action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’. In simple terms, the ambition is to eliminate all harmful emissions from the energy chain.

The UK road map to do that in terms of the electrical energy chain is just about do-able thanks to the impressive cost of energy performance of offshore and onshore wind, which form the greater part of the UK’s greening strategy. New technologies to manage the grid will support the adoption of more and more renewables, and we can expect another bumper year for renewable development activity.

Onshore, this wave of development will look a bit different to what we had been used to previously. Instead of windfarms consisting of multiple, fast-rotating small turbines, new developments will have fewer but much larger turbines turning at more leisurely speeds. Their greater tip heights – with exponentially greater rotor sweep paths – generate more power, more efficiently. The trend to taller turbines has implications for obtaining wind speed data, which will be needed at greater heights than before. The practical difficulties and costs that go along with erecting higher wind masts will therefore lead to a greater role for LiDAR in wind data gathering and for advanced analytical techniques that are able to reliably correlate measurements at tip heights.

While the prognosis for decarbonising electricity generation is good, even achieving this will get the UK only a third or so of the way to zero emissions. There are still huge questions about many other sectors – particularly aviation, shipping and heating – not least how it will become possible within 10 or 20 years to eliminate reliance on fossil fuels within these areas and not cause disproportionate economic hardship.

Aviation is a particularly intractable problem where almost the entire industrial lens of the Western world, the brightest brains and the best engineers, have succeeded in making flying the safest and quickest way to get around the planet. At the same time, today’s perfected flying machines are the most difficult of all to decarbonise without radical future technology. Inevitably, new aircraft will require a huge amount of time to develop, test and deploy.

There is a similar intractable story in respect of global shipping, where virtually the entire fleet would need to be converted to non-fossil alternatives, a task that is akin to rebuilding from scratch.

On the positive side, given the right economic framework, there is no doubt that much of the technology we need to make a transition already exists. Fuel substitution in the form of hydrogen, methanol, ammonia and a host of others can get the job done. Such fuels are able to reach the higher heating values that many process industries rely upon. In terms of energy density, many of these fuels also approach values which would be of interest to sectors like aviation and shipping, that both require low weight and low volume energy solutions.

What these technologies need to make an impact quickly is an agreed global economic framework that bans high carbon, incentivises low emissions, and gives a chance for alternatives to be established so that they can scale-up and eventually be cost competitive. Solar, offshore wind and other renewables have shown what is possible. We can also look at recent advances in carbon capture and storage, in particular, carbon sequestration and other potential climate engineering solutions that can directly extract carbon dioxide from the air. These solutions are lab-scale at the moment, but when everything is needed to mitigate climate change – including the kitchen sink – I am prepared to predict that carbon capture storage will be a key talking point this year in Glasgow.

The enormity of the decarbonisation challenge continues to be misunderstood and underestimated. The starting point for an ‘emissions enlightenment’ is the realisation that what the world is facing is fundamentally as much an economic problem as an environmental one. This is because energy and emissions are integral to what constitutes an acceptable quality of living in most countries. People living in cold countries expect to have heating on demand. In the tropics, energy intensive air conditioning (which was once an aspiration) is increasingly seen as a necessity. Emergency emissions reduction implies major economic disruption and will probably lead to hardship for many, which is why the transition to a new, emissions-free economy needs to be managed carefully and equitably. With the risk of tipping points being reached very soon, time is fast running out. A lot is riding on the outcome of COP26, where global consensus on emission reduction and binding national targets are urgently needed.

This implies an unprecedented level of global trust being established between nations,whose leaders will undoubtedly face political backlashes as old industries are reconfigured to make them compatible with global targets. Without such a consensus being achieved, it is difficult to imagine that COP26 will be capable of deliveringmuch meaningful change, especially given the likely focus on post-pandemic economic recovery by all countries. It is not an exaggeration to say that genuine courage and leadership are required if the conference is to deliver a meaningful agreement that prevents catastrophic climate change.

In spite of previous climate summits falling short in their ambitions and outcomes, there are some grounds for optimism around COP26. The political mood music from the past year or so has been full of commitments to putting renewables at the heart of future economic growth. Boris Johnson produced his 10-point plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’, the EU launched its ‘European Green Deal’, and, unexpectedly, Xi Jinping committed China to carbon neutrality by 2060. Donald Trump was the most obvious dissenter, but he’s now been replaced by Joe Biden who is bringing a $2 trillion climate change plan to the table. Even in normal circumstances getting consensus among world leaders is a tall order; in the aftermath of COVID, the danger is that some will see the rapid development of renewables as a hindrance rather than a help to much-needed economic recovery. Such a notion is frankly ridiculous, given the huge amount of economic activity associated with renewables worldwide.

There seems no getting away from a top down, global approach to emissions reduction, and COP26 represents our best chance of delivering it. If it fails, many predict that by the time we reach COP27 it will already be too late. It remains to be seen whether the optimism of Boris Johnson will be misplaced, or whether he and the other world leaders can forge an unprecedented agreement that finally charts an emissions-free future for the world.