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The critical role of energy transition in reducing the world’s carbon footprint

The world we live in undergoing rapid change, from industrialization to urbanization to digitalization. Over the coming decades, the pressure on our environment will only intensify as the climate crisis remains under the global spotlight.

With global energy demand increasing, the energy landscape is evolving at pace and becoming more complex, so it’s critical that we stay focused on the end goal in our energy transition – the need for decarbonization.

Overview of energy transition

The energy transition is on everyone’s mind today; you hear about it everywhere you go – at conferences, in the news, even at your local pub. It is everyone’s vision, but it cannot happen without more innovation, new technologies and heaps of ambition.

The scale and rapidity of transition away from fossil fuels is unprecedented. Put simply, it is the largest in our history. It cannot even be compared to previous energy transitions. It took coal 125 years to overtake traditional biomass as a primary source of energy epitomised by Watt’s Steam Engine in 1776. It took a further 100 years for oil to overtake coal as a primary source and currently gas is expected to take the lead by 2030.

Yet to rapidly mitigate climate change effects, the world agrees that renewables need to become the primary source of energy no later than 2050. That is only 20 years after the previous transition. At the same time, the demand for energy continues to grow globally. Total global energy consumption today is approximately 150,000 TWh per year and the vast majority is delivered from fossil fuels. Alongside this the EIA (US Energy Information Administration) predicts an almost 50% increase in world energy usage by 2050 (comp. to 2019), led by growth in Asia.

To support this growing demand for energy and balance it with the need to reduce carbon emissions, the global fuel mix over the next 20 years must become far more diversified than before. According to BP’s Energy Outlook – to achieve net zero by 2050, the total final energy composition (excl. non-combusted energy) should consist of up to 85% electricity, hydrogen and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage playing a significant role.

In May this year, the International Energy Agency released their roadmap to net zero for the global energy sector, which outlined a two-pronged strategy; a decade of massive clean energy expansion using existing technology (2020s) and the integration of technologies (2030 – 2050) that are currently only at the demonstration or prototype phase.

What is clear, as we enter a multi decade transition, is that technology will be the key enabler to the diversification and hybridization of fuels.

So, how do we drive the energy transition forward?

The energy transition is becoming much more tangible, but it will take time, and there are countless paths to get to net zero that will affect the future energy system.

The journey is as important as the destination, we are not going to get there overnight, and we all have a part to play. Industry needs to work together in a a concerted and collective way.

Ultimately, supply must match demand, and this presents some challenges. Electricity and hydrogen will have an important role in the new energy mix, but the cost of this energy versus conventional fuel needs to be considered. With high capital costs for many it is simply not affordable to diversify quickly with investment cycles needed to be made. Similarly, renewables, which in many parts of the world are established sources of energy, remain intermittent and challenging to store.  Socio-economic and political challenges also need to be considered with local circumstances, available energy sources and existing infrastructure differing greatly in markets and economies around the globe. 

Therefore, as well as diversification, hybridization needs to occur. Fossil fuels will not disappear overnight, so it is important to ensure their production is as energy efficient and carbon neutral as possible. This can be achieved by integrating renewables and electrification into their production models.  Likewise, the cleanest energy is the energy we save and enabling low carbon, efficient operations for existing operators is also vital. It’s time to reappraise the value of energy and ensure that energy efficiency and smart energy management is top priority. Every unit of energy, no matter how small, makes a difference.

Automation and digitalization can help reconcile all these industrial needs to ensure access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy.

We are working closely with customers to deploy technologies that will help accelerate their energy transition, via electrification, the integration and growth of renewables, and by ensuring energy efficiency.  This includes; delivering solutions for floating wind farms to power offshore oil and gas platforms, ensuring the reliability and stability of hydro and solar power, helping to reduce CO2 emissions in the steel industry by replacing coal with hydrogen in the steelmaking process, and working with electrolyzer manufacturers to optimize the production of green hydrogen.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the energy transition is already forcing significant structural change to the energy landscape, but this is necessary and welcome change which ultimately will enable a clean energy future.

Today it is much more than the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy – there are so many more dimensions – and we should not underestimate the advances that have already been made around the world. But if we are to sustain and accelerate these efforts, we need to continually invest and innovate, working together to ensure more sustainable, resilient, affordable, and secure energy for all.

By Brandon Spencer, President Energy Industries, ABB

Brandon Spencer is currently serving as President for ABB’s Energy Industries division globally. In this capacity he is a member of the Industrial Automation Business Area management team. The Energy Industries division helps companies across the energy industry develop, produce and operate safely, efficiently and profitably. Brandon joined ABB in 2006 and has dedicated his career to helping ABB’s customers achieve their goals and be more successful.

His responsibilities during his 15 years with the company include Global Account Management for both ConocoPhilips and ExxonMobil , Vice President of ABB’s Oil, Gas and Chemicals business in North America, as well as managing several of ABB’s large national accounts. Most recently (2018-2020), Brandon served as Managing Director for the Process Industries business line, covering Mining, Pulp & Paper, Metals, Aluminum, Cement, and Hybrid Industries.

Prior to joining ABB, Brandon served in various roles within Siemens Power Generation. These roles included positions in operations, service, and sales & marketing. Brandon holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in business administration from the Crummer School of Business at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He is based in Houston, Texas.

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