Utilities and regulators evaluate grid modernization initiatives using economic paradigms. They determine if investments at the grid edge are cost effective relative to investments made in traditional generation, transmission and distribution assets. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published a special report titled ‘Global Warming of 1.5°C’, with an accompanying Summary for Policymakers. The Summary stated that if global warming continues at its current rate, we will likely reach a 1.5°C increase in global mean surface temperature (GMST) compared to pre-industrial levels between the years 2030 and 2052. The Report and Summary provided a comparison of outcomes we can expect if GMST increases to 1.5°C versus 2.0°C. It also presented solutions to support limiting global warming to the smaller value.
What to Expect
Estimated anthropogenic (or human-caused) global warming is currently increasing at 0.2°C per decade due to past and ongoing emissions. If all anthropogenic emissions (including greenhouse gases, aerosols and their precursors) were to cease immediately, they would still persist for centuries, continuing to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as rising sea levels. Managing net-zero emissions will halt anthropogenic global warming by decades, but it will be necessary to achieve net-negative emissions in order to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere which would threaten further warming and sea level rising due to Earth’s system feedbacks and reverse ocean acidification.
Based on the assessment of available scientific, technical and socio-economic literature, the Report and Summary provide a comparison of outcomes we can expect to see if GMST increases to 1.5°C and to 2.0°C. The difference of half a degree is significant:
- With 1.5°C of global warming, one sea-ice-free Arctic summer is projected per century; this is expected to increase to at least one per decade at 2°.
- At 1.5°C we can expect a decrease in global annual catch for marine fisheries of about 1.5 million tonnes, compared to a loss of more than 3 million tonnes at 2°.
- Poverty and disadvantages are expected to increase in some populations as global warming increases. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared with 2°C could reduce the number of people both exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050.
- Depending on future socioeconomic conditions, limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared to 2°C, may reduce the proportion of the world population exposed to climate-change induced increase in water stress by up to 50% (with considerable variability between regions).
- Global mean sea level rise is projected to be around 0.1 meter lower with global warming at 1.5°C compared to 2°C.
- Limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C is projected to lower the impacts on terrestrial, freshwater, and coastal ecosystems; the global terrestrial land area at risk of undergoing a transformation of ecosystem is 50% lower at 1.5°C than at 2°.
- Coral reefs are projected to decline by a further 70-90% at 1.5°C with larger losses (>99%) at 2°. The risk of irreversible loss of many marine and coastal ecosystems increases with global warming, especially at 2°C or more.
- For global warming from 1.5°C to 2°C, risks across energy, food and water sectors could overlap spatially and temporally, creating new, and exacerbating current, hazards, exposers and vulnerabilities that could affect increasing numbers of people and regions.
Based on these findings, it is imperative that we find methods to limit warming to 1.5°C. Unfortunately, estimates of the global emissions outcome of current nationally stated mitigation ambitions, as submitted under the Paris Agreement, would not limit global warming to 1.5°C.
It's Time to Chill Out
Despite the foreseen challenges, the Summary for Policymakers offers a few glimmers of hope. Scientific studies and simulations suggest that reducing CO2e emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 will limit global warming to 1.5°C. The Summary goes on to provide measures that will enable us to get there by striking a balance between lowering energy and resource intensity, increasing rates of decarbonization and the reliance on carbon dioxide removal.
Energy, utilities and cleantech play significant roles in meeting these measures. Some of the changes we will be responsible for implementing include:
- Total annual average energy-related mitigation investments of $900 billion USD for 2015 – 2050, with an annual average of $1.6 - $3.8 trillion going towards supply investments and $700 - $1,000 billion going towards demand side investments.
- With the large sum going to demand-side investments, the average annual investment in low-carbon energy technologies and energy efficiency will need to be upscaled by roughly a factor of five by 2050, compared to 2015.
- Up to 8 million km2of pasture land and up to 5 million km2of non-pasture agriculture land for food and feed crops will be converted to energy crops and forests by 2050.
- Renewables are projected to supply 70-85% of electricity by 2050, while the use of coal will steeply be reduced to 0 - 2% of electricity.
- The use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will allow the electricity generation share of gas to be approximately 8% of global electricity in 2050.
As mentioned above, ceasing emissions entirely will only get us to net-zero. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies will have to be used to get us to net-negative. Existing and potential CDR measures include afforestation and reforestation, land restoration and soil carbon sequestration, BECCS, direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS), enhanced weathering and ocean alkalinisation. Our understanding of the carbon cycle and the climate system is still limited with regards to the effectiveness of net negative emissions in reducing temperatures once they have peaked, so avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of CDR can only be achieved if global emissions start to decline well before 2030. In other words, the lower the emissions in 2030, the lower the challenge in limiting global warming and preserving as much of our environment and way-of-life as possible.
The rate of system changes associated with limiting global warming to 1.5°C have occurred in the past within specific sectors, technologies and spatial contexts, but there is no documented historic precedent for their scale. Now that we have the guidelines, the end goal and the known technologies to get us there, it’s up to us to build the roadmap to scale.
Using the Grid Edge Makes Sense
The summary concludes by emphasizing that increasing investment in physical and social infrastructure is a key enabling condition to enhance the resilience and the adaptive capacities of societies. With the increase in erratic weather patterns, utilities and regulators are looking to grid modernization and the grid edge for resiliency and emergency measures. However, many proposed utility microgrids and non-wire alternatives in the US have been rejected by state regulators because these projects, intended to be financed with ratepayer funds, do not compare economically to traditional, greenhouse gas emitting distribution system upgrades when using cost-of-service regulations and traditional cost-test evaluation criteria.
There is also a compelling opportunity for the sector to contribute to significant decreases in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in support of limiting warming to 1.5°C. Political, economic, social and technical feasibility of solar energy, wind energy and electricity storage technologies have substantially improved, and as many as half of the existing coal, nuclear, and gas-fired power plants in the United States are likely to retire in the next 15 years, signaling a potential system transition in electricity generation. Demand management technologies that complement this transition to cleaner electricity generation, including microgrids, energy efficiency, non-wire alternatives, demand response and distributed energy resources, exist today but will need to be scaled significantly.
The grid edge technology is there – it’s up to our global policy makers, regulators and utilities to transition to performance-based regulations and begin evaluating emissions and conducting societal cost tests (SCT) on a global scale when choosing the most cost-effective programs to include in a budget. The United Nations has called Climate Change “thesingle biggest threat to life, security and prosperity on Earth” – it’s time environmental risks be treated as equivalent to economic stakes when developing a business case to support the significant decrease in emissions by 2030.
The grid edge technology is there – it’s up to our global policy makers, regulators and utilities to transition to performance-based regulations and begin evaluating emissions and conducting societal cost tests (SCT) on a global scale when choosing the most cost-effective programs to include in a budget. The United Nations has called climate change “the single biggest threat to life, security and prosperity on Earth” – it’s time environmental risks be treated as equivalent to economic stakes when developing a business case to support the significant decrease in emissions by 2030.