Climate change is arguably the biggest challenge facing the planet today. In my opinion, politicians, scientists, and energy consumers need to embrace 3 distinct disruptive technologies in order to drive change quickly enough to avert this impending global disaster.
EIA (Energy Information Agency) data tells us that the total CO2 emissions from carbon-based fuels has increased from about 21.45 billion metric tons in 1990 to 33.96 billion metric tons today. The EIA forecasts that emissions will reach 43.22 billion metric tons by 2040 if we continue what we are doing today.
Figure 1. Historical and forecasted CO2 emissions
CO2 emissions alone don’t actually tell us that much about pollution. To learn more, we need to convert the EIA figures to parts per million (PPM) .
We are at the 400 ppm mark today, and if we continue as usual we should hit 460 ppm by 2040. 400 ppm is considered by many scientists to be the maximum level that the ppm count can get to and maintain global warming averages below a 2 degC rise. Above this, the chances of capping global warming to 2 degC diminishes, as is shown in the next figure.
Figure 2. Calculated PPM curve – calibrated to the Keeling curve
So the question now is: How quickly do we need to reduce carbon emissions in order to reduce the likelihood of increased global warming?
Based on my own model and calculation, there are 3 possible scenarios, shown in Figure 3:
- We continue as we are today, with little change and an increasing demand for energy supplied by fossil fuels
- We reduce our carbon-producing footprint at a rate similar to what was created
- We drive a completely disruptive approach to reduce our carbon emissions
In order to reach zero emissions by 2050, we would need to reduce our carbon emissions by at least 10% year on year, which is a huge reduction.
Figure 3. Three possible outcomes for CO2 emissions
We again convert this to PPM, and Figure 4 shows that the only way is rapid disruption. Outcomes of global discussions for the most part only seem to have targets returning to the 1990 averages by mid-century, which is simply too slow. Some countries have adopted a more aggressive approach, which is good, but probably not enough to get us across the line.
Figure 4 – Three possible outcomes for CO2 emissions (PPM)
So the results are clear: We must act very quickly. The question is what technology or combination of technologies can get us there in short timeframe. There is long-term stable nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, or of course a combination of all these, and storage is a also major part of the equation.
The challenge for governments is where to focus and what legislation or projects to back to ensure that change happens quickly enough. The problem today is that change is happening at a sustaining rate rather than a disruptive rate (Scenario 2). This means change is simply happening too slowly. We therefore need to shift our attention away from sustaining technology enhancements and look for disruptive ones.
The difference between disruptive technologies and sustaining technologies is probably best described by Clayton Christensen in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma:
“Sustaining technologies improve the performance of established products, along the dimensions of performance that mainstream customers in major markets have historically valued. Disruptive technologies bring to market a very different value proposition than had been available previously. Generally, disruptive technologies underperform established products in mainstream markets. But they have other features that a few fringe (and generally new) customers value.”
When we apply this thinking to renewable energies, there are two vital requirements that need to come together to drive a truly disruptive change:
- The technology needs to have new features that appeal to customers in a different way
- The technology needs to have a completely different revenue model or value proposition.
In my opinion, there are 3 technologies that need to come together to deliver these two vital requirements.
The first is rooftop solar.
While rooftop panels might seem like an expensive investment initially, there are some clear long-term financial benefits. Displaying them on your roof also says something valuable about you and your contribution to sustainable living.
Rooftop solar is also taking action at a macro level. It is driving us toward a distributed power model, which is completely different to the model we have today. For the first time in history, individuals have the power to decide where they get their power. This consumer-driven trend has sparked a movement not unlike the rise of the smartphone.
Consider, for example, the plot in Figure 5, which shows the drop in the price of solar PVs against the combined power being generated by solar from 2010 to 2014. The trend added 4.5 GW of power to the grid, while the price of that energy dropped by almost 500% over the 4 years. That’s the equivalent of adding about 8 large-scale power plants to the grid, the bulk of which would have been completed in 3 years or less.
Figure 5 – Cumulative global solar photovoltaic deployment and solar photovoltaic module prices 2000 to 2014
It’s probably no surprise that batteries, or power storage, is the second disrupter. Storage allows us to take advantage of the sun during the day, storing excess power for when there is less sun.
Batteries like solar PV’s are also on a disruptive price curve, meaning that the year on year price decline is making them noticably cheaper every day.
So that is great for consumers living in suburbia with plenty roof space and sunlight, but how does it help apartment-dwellers whose only option is to buy power from the grid?
Peer-to-peer trading is the third important disrupter. This essentially cuts out the retailer and allows individuals to trade directly with each other. To make peer-to-peer trading a reality we need to bring together smart grids and network-based trading. The smart grid conversation is well underway, and some companies are starting to look at leveraging blockchain technology to allow peer-to-peer trading.
Peer-to-peer trading would allow city dwellers to partake in the digital energy revolution by buying excess power from the cheapest provider on the grid. What is interesting here is that the longer peer-to-peer trading takes to implement, the more pressure there will be on large power facilities when it does happen. As more users make the jump to rooftop solar (potentially going off the grid), fewer people remain on the grid to pay for the infrastructure. With demand dropping, costs are likely to go up, further fuelling the move to rooftop solar.
This ultimately means more and more solar PVs, which will likely lead to a huge energy glut in the market. When peer-to-peer trading eventually does kick in, large power facilities will need to compete with plenty cheap home- grown solar. (We see a similar phenomenon with AirBnB, where hotels are now competing with individuals who have a much lower cost base).
Electricity generation contributes only about 70% of CO2 emissions, so it’s not the only major contributor to the carbon footprint. The second-largest contributor to CO2 emissions is the transportation sector. With a potential electricity glut driven by the abundance of solar power, storage, and peer-to-peer trading, it follows naturally that electric cars will soon become much cheaper to run than their carbon-consuming alternatives.
This will likely happen more quickly in urban environments, with long-range travel taking a little longer. In fact, we are already seeing similar rapid price declines in the transportation sector, where the cost of electric cars is dropping and the variety of options is increasing dramatically. Electric cars also don’t face the challenge of a network to supply “electric fuel,” unlike competitors such as hydrogen-powered cars.
The final dimension to consider is how all this plays out in third-world countries. Today non-OECD countries, which predominantly represent the poorer countries, account for about 60% of global emissions.
At the rate at which solar and battery prices are dropping, it won’t be long before we see a massive jump in the uptake of individualised power generation in emerging countries. A decentralised power model will leapfrog the traditional grid model, reducing not only the cost of power but also the time required to provide power in remote places from years to literally days. We saw a similar trend when cellular phones emerged, with networks and adoption proliferating even in high-poverty areas.
In conclusion, it is my opinion that unless governments and lawmakers support rapid reduction of CO2 emissions by getting behind energy disruption, supporting a decentralised solar model, and adopting new laws that facilitate peer-to-peer trading and accelerate smart grid technology, we will fail as a society to stop global warming. Unfortunately, I don’t see sustaining technologies like nuclear, wind, and large-scale solar as sufficient, because they don’t make the leap from sustaining incremental improvement to disruptive change.
A decentralised power model supported by power storage and peer-to-peer trading, all linked via a smart grid, will enable the economic drivers necessary to change how we generate and buy power. There is nothing like a financial incentive to ultimately unite consumers toward the common cause of reducing the threat of climate change.
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