Four Ways to Ensure a Secure Transition to Renewable Energy

COVID-19 has added urgency to countries’ efforts to transition to renewable resources such as biomass, geothermal, solar, hydrogen, ocean, and wind.  Photo: Andreas Gucklhorn
COVID-19 has added urgency to countries’ efforts to transition to renewable resources such as biomass, geothermal, solar, hydrogen, ocean, and wind. Photo: Andreas Gucklhorn

By Yongping Zhai (翟永平)

As countries in Asia and the Pacific make the transition to renewable energy in a post COVID-19 world, they should strive to ensure clean energy is available to everyone, everywhere and around the clock.

The year 2020 may have been a defining period for the transition to renewable energy. The COVID-19 pandemic is a once in a century public health emergency that pushed the “reset” button on the global economy.  Since its onset, more and more countries, cities, and companies have announced net zero emissions targets by the middle of the 21st century.

While pursuing the needed energy transition, many stakeholders have rightly highlighted the need to carefully manage a “socially just” transition to ensure energy services are affordable for everyone, including the most vulnerable people.

Equally important, the energy transition must be “secure,” with energy supply chains providing quality services for the daily functioning of people's lives, economic activities, and public services.  A low carbon transition towards net zero targets must not compromise system reliability, especially as the global pandemic requires people to work and attend school from home.

The global energy system today is still largely dominated by fossil fuels, with well-established conventional technologies. Coal, oil, and natural gas account for about 84% of primary energy, with about 12% from renewable energy and 4% from nuclear in 2019. The energy transition is essentially matching end-use applications with renewable resources using appropriate energy technologies in a cost-effective system, to bring the share of renewable energy to more than 90% if not 100%.

For this long-term goal, there is no shortage of renewable resources. Biomass, geothermal, solar, hydrogen, ocean, and wind, combine to deliver the “BiGSHOW” – a term attributed to Ms. Clarita S. De Jesus, a Senior Science Research Specialist at the Department of Energy of the Philippines. These renewable resources are abundant globally, and more evenly distributed around the world than fossil fuels.

There are concerns that energy systems with high shares of renewable energy are less reliable than fossil fuel-based systems. As renewable energy systems are relatively new, there are real uncertainties and there are real solutions. Broadly speaking, there are four ways to make sure the future low carbon energy system remains robust, reliable and secure.

First, “getting to zero” requires judicious comprehensive and long-term planning. As such, every country that committed to net zero should develop a road map that includes three milestones with timelines: reducing CO2 emission intensity in GDP; peaking of the total CO2 emission; and net zero CO2 emission.

For example, the People’s Republic of China has set a goal to reduce CO2 intensity by 60%-65% compared to 2005 by 2030; reach peak CO2 emission by 2030; and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. In pursuing each of these milestones, the reliability of energy systems should be always part of the planning.

There is room for using “transition technologies” in reducing the CO2 intensity, such as improving efficiency of existing fossil fuel-based energy facilities and switching from coal to natural gas. Although natural gas is still a fossil fuel, it is 50%-60% less carbon intensive than coal and can be flexibly used to balance the variability of solar and wind power.

Second, making renewable energy readily available, or dispatchable, at all times to meet variable energy demand in day or night, whether in summer or winter. While energy storage technologies are crucial, energy systems will be more secure when composed of a diversified renewable energy portfolio.

In Qinghai Province, People’s Republic of China (PRC), an 850MW solar PV farm is linked with the 1280 MW Longyangxia hydropower station, the world’s first integrated solar-hydropower hybrid system, which enables intermittent solar PV to be dispatched with hydropower to supply predictable output.

COVID-19, a once in a century public health emergency, pushed the “reset” button on the global economy. 

Third, energy systems will be less vulnerable to large-scale blackout when they move from highly integrated and centralized large systems to decentralized and local smaller systems that optimize demand, consumption, and management by offering tailormade energy supply solutions at the consumer level. Application of digital technologies can enhance energy systems’ ability to withstand disruptive events, limit their impacts, adapt to their consequences, speedily recover, and re-establish electricity service.

At the same time, increasing digitization of infrastructure can also be a double-edged sword:  digitization introduces an additional challenge to defend energy supply chains and services from cyber-attack, which is an immediate threat, to be addressed simultaneously with improving climate resilience of energy infrastructure. In the context of cyber-resilience, blockchain is promising in that it is inherently resistant to cyber-attack.

Fourth, regional cooperation is an effective way to ensure the integrity of energy systems on a global scale. India has recently launched the concept of “One Sun One World One Grid” (OSOWOG), with the ambition to connect 140 countries through a common grid that will be used to transfer solar power. The vision behind the concept is that “the sun never sets” and is a constant at some geographical location, globally, at any given time.

Similarly, the PRC has been promoting global energy interconnection as a modern energy system platform for large-scale development, transmission, and utilization of renewable energy resources globally. Such dreams of “One Sun One World One Grid” and global energy interconnection at the global scale can only be realized through a step-by-step approach, starting with building national grids and inter-regional interconnections in different subregions of the world, in parallel with community based microgrids in each country.

Innovative initiatives are a key part of this process. In Bangladesh, high-level advanced conductors allow more power transfer with lower energy losses, and are used in combination with drone technology to improve operational efficiency and safety.

As countries in Asia and the Pacific undertake in the energy transition in post COVID-19 world, they should strive to make it “just” – so no one is left out, and equally important, it has to be “secure” so clean energy is available everywhere and around the clock.