Electricity and net zero: There is no transition without transmission

To meet our climate goals, we need to supercharge the speed at which we build better electricity grids

The International Energy Agency says building more robust electrical grids is critical to a more sustainable world. AFP
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Reaching net-zero by 2050 requires a radical shift in the way we power our economies. In the coming decade, driven by the urgency to decarbonise, we will transform the way we power our cars, homes and much of the industrial economy. This will involve a significant departure from fossil fuels, while putting power at the forefront of our sustainable future and signalling a golden age for electricity.

This cleaner, more electrified future is not a given, however. The International Energy Agency’s recent report on electricity grids highlighted the inadequacies of the world’s network as we move towards a decarbonised, digitalised and decentralised energy future. According to the IEA, the task before us is to rebuild and repurpose an 80 million-kilometre grid system that took us 100 years to develop, in the next 15 years.

The beauty of electricity is not simply its production but its versatility. Our ability to store it, move it and build use cases around it has dramatically improved living standards and positioned it as the bedrock of prosperity. Just consider the vital role electricity plays in powering the air-conditioning that has been instrumental to the development of cities in the UAE and around the Gulf.

This new phase of sustainable growth will lean on electricity in new ways, unforeseen when our current grids were developed. The nature of generation is changing dramatically with increasingly high shares coming from low-cost intermittent sources such as wind and solar. Power demand is also being shaped by new forces. While we will still need it for our lights, televisions and computers, we will also need it to charge our cars, provide heating as well as cooling and for fuelling industrial processes.

The task before us is to rebuild and repurpose an 80 million km grid system that took us 100 years to develop, in the next 15 years

The nature of our relationship with the grid will evolve into something more dynamic. More and more of us may want to also supply power to our grids from home energy systems and electric vehicles, and in some countries, smart appliances and smart meters are allowing customers to use appliances when demand is low, and power is cheaper – offering stability benefits to the grid and cost benefits to consumers.

This is not an incremental shift but a transformation in our power system that requires considerable investment. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the cumulative global investment needed to build the grid of the future is more than $20 trillion from now to 2050 – making it one of the most significant global infrastructure demands of the 21st century.

A significant proportion of this investment will be made in interconnections. As the electricity system evolves, connecting reliable sources of supply with major demand centres will increasingly involve cross-border power trading made possible by high-voltage interconnections. Take the XLinks project for example, which Taqa is invested in. It will connect 10 gigawatts of new wind and solar power generation capacity in Morocco, with a major source of demand 3,800 kilometres away in the UK.

These high-voltage interconnectors are also playing a role in linking low-carbon grid power to industrial demand centres, again encouraging the development of new partnerships and unleashing innovative solutions for hard-to-abate emissions. Adnoc and its partners recently announced the financial close of a first-of-its-kind in the region project that will allow the grid to serve Adnoc’s offshore power needs – helping them to decarbonise their operations and their production.

These examples show the versatility of the electricity system while also highlighting the extent to which it must evolve over the next few decades to enable the energy transition. And we are already behind the curve. It is estimated that about 1,500 gigawatts of wind and solar power projects in the US and Europe are stuck in interconnection queues – leaving projects equal to all new renewables installed globally since 2016, standing by, waiting for a grid connection.

The sector was already bracing for the electrification revolution but the climate action agenda and Cop28 priorities have put us on notice of the need to pick up the pace. Fast-tracking the energy transition is a centre piece of the Cop28 Presidency’s priorities, and that means supercharging the speed at which we build out robust, flexible and interconnected grids.

This essential prerequisite for the energy transition does not get the attention it deserves, but the reality is there is no transition without transmission. As the Economist headline said in its April 8 edition this year, if net zero is the goal, it may be more appropriate that you hug a pylon than a tree.

Published: December 04, 2023, 7:00 AM
Updated: December 05, 2023, 3:51 PM