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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation

The Future of Energy

A Roadmap to Decarbonization

Toward a new relationship with electricity – but what needs to be done to achieve total decarbonization?

Climate change is already happening. The question is: can we mitigate it? A Siemens study maps a path to achieving the goals set by the Paris Agreement.

How will our lives change in this century? Will we have autonomous vehicles? Will cancer be defeated? Will there be colonies on Mars? No one knows.  As far as the planet’s future temperature is concerned, however, there is one clear target: The Paris Climate Agreement signed in 2015 obliges the international community – with the exception of the United States – to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial climate in this century. We also know what it will take to achieve this goal: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), to a net zero.

But in order to reach this target, a whole bundle of decarbonization measures is needed. Since these steps are not specified in the Paris treaty, national governments and international scientific bodies have been researching and debating what measures are needed to achieve the climate target. Siemens, with its Environmental Portfolio, has been helping its customers both on the energy supply and demand side to reduce their carbon footprint. In late 2017, Siemens published a position paper, which, based on extensive computer simulations and using Germany’s Climate Targets 2050 as an example, presents an array of measures helping to pave the way to a carbon-neutral global economy.

The West of Duddon Sands Offshore Windfarm off England’s northwest coast. Wind power is a well-established technology. However, to become even more competitive, it must become more cost-efficient.

A Highly Flexible and Stable Power Grid

On the supply side, worldwide electricity is still produced mainly from fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil – with the consequence of emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In 2014, according to the World Bank, fossil fuels’ share of electricity production was 67%, with the remainder distributed between nuclear energy and renewable energy sources. In Germany, things look a bit better than the global average. In 2017, the share of fossil fuels was just shy of 50 percent. According to the German government’s climate plan, the share of renewable energy sources (in Germany) is set to rise to 80 percent by 2050, with wind energy making the largest contribution. But a clear plan is needed to achieve this.

Of course, renewable energy sources cannot be integrated into the power grid without major effort, as electricity from wind and the sun fluctuates greatly. As a result, in Germany, as in other countries, a highly flexible and stable electricity grid is required. It has to meet peak demand with the help of intelligent energy management systems and, in the event of oversupply, use other solutions – such as heat pumps, storage technologies or generating hydrogen, which in turn can help – if needed – to stabilize the grid. However, this does not mean conventional power plants could simply be shut down. As long as renewable energy sources cannot guarantee a base load, other power plants have to assure stability. Instead of coal-fired power plants, though, gas-fired power plants – with Combined Cycle and Single Cycle turbines as Siemens offers – can supply the base load and later, with an increasing share of renewables in the systems, they will be able to function as a backup system. In Germany, this could bring coal-based energy production to a halt by 2050 or earlier. In short, the conversion of conventional power generation must therefore be pursued with just as much determination as the expansion of renewable energy sources.

The Extra 330LE plane sets several world records. It’s equipped with an electric drive system. The Siemens study expects the first hybrid-electric aircraft with up to 100 seats to enter service by 2030.

Key Concept: Sector Coupling

On the demand side, all sectors of the economy have to be more closely intertwined. Here, the key concept is "sector coupling” for the heating, transport and industry sectors through a combination of electrification and utilization of electricity-based synthetic fuels.

These days, for example, heat is still generated primarily by burning fossil fuels. This will change. Whereas central heating is mainly electrified through heat pumps combined with solar thermal systems, one can observe a shift towards a mix of biomass, so called “resistive heaters” and heat pumps for the electrification of central – industrial and district – heating. If this trend continues, these technologies can substitute gas and aim to achieve the utmost CO2 targets. Obviously, these measures should be accompanied by improved building insulation combined with systems for building automation.

Many parts of the transport sector have already been electrified, mainly in public transport: railways, subways, trains and increasingly even busses. But the vehicle fleet, especially private transport, also needs to be transformed – not an easy undertaking considering that 45 million cars were registered in Germany alone in 2017 – and worldwide, by 2015, almost 950 million. According to the Siemens paper, electric cars and vehicles powered by electricity-generated synthetic fuels will start representing a significant share after 2030.

Freight transport ideally should be shifted from road to rail. And trucks can be powered by hybrid solutions such as batteries or overhead lines.

If Carbon Emissions Cannot be Avoided…

Freight transport, on the other hand, ideally should be shifted from road to rail, as, for example, experts from Germany’s "Agora Verkehrswende" think-tank call for – a trend that so far has yet to materialize. But trucks can also be powered by hybrid solutions such as batteries and engines running on hydrogen and electricity-generated synthetic fuels. Additionally, Siemens’ e-highway overhead trolley systems also offer a potentially high level of flexibility.  In addition to road transport, the decarbonization of air and sea transport is also of the greatest importance. Aircraft, for instance, should increasingly use hybrid-electric propulsion systems and synthetic fuels; the Siemens study expects the first hybrid-electric aircraft with up to 100 seats to enter service by 2030.

In the industrial sector, decarbonization not only concerns heat generation, but also the production of new products – such as fertilizers, plastics or cleaning agents in the chemical industry – which are still based primarily on fossil fuels. And if CO2 emissions cannot be completely avoided, as is the case with cement production, they should be separated and stored with the help of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)-technology. CCS can help to reach a CO2 emission reduction level of more than 90%.

The Fortuna combined cycle power plant unit at Düsseldorf’s Lausward Power Station houses a world record-holding turbine from Siemens.

Electrification of various sectors of the global economy then appears to be the best way to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the Paris climate agreement's ambitious goals would not be attainable if they were not accompanied by increased efficiency. This applies to highly efficient electric drives, heat pumps, building automation, trains, etc. as well as electricity production itself. For example, industry should use the co-generation of power and heat (CHP) wherever applicable. By 2030, as an article in Science highlighted in May 2017, improved energy efficiency alone could reduce greenhouse gases by up to 50 percent by 2030.

Now, will a beautiful new world of managed climate change become a reality thanks to these innovative technologies? Will the global temperature rise really be limited to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100? Despite the technical and economic feasibility of these measures, there are no guarantees. As the Siemens paper and other studies have emphasized, such steps cannot be taken without the political will of the national and international communities. The German government, for example, must create an appropriate political framework in order to ensure that the accelerated phase-out of coal-fired power generation can be achieved. To support this goal, Germany also needs to support a new electricity market that rewards investments in renewable energy and low-emission technologies or the introduction of a price floor for CO2 emissions.

Hubertus Breuer
Picture credits: von oben: 1. Bild gettyimages