Since I’ve been trying to better understand some other aspects of the climate change topic, I recently read a paper by Jesse Jenkins, Max Luke, and Samuel Thernstrom. It’s about Getting to Zero Carbon Emissions in the Electric Power Sector, and is essentially a literature review. Unfortunately, it is paywalled. Jesse did send me a copy, but I don’t know if there is a freely available version elsewhere. If I find one, I will provide a link.
Since this isn’t a topic about which I have much knowledge, or expertise, I thought this might be an opportunity to have a bit of an open thread about how we could decarbonise. However, I will try to briefly summarise my understanding of this paper, and will probably fail to keep it brief.
Even though the paper focuses on the electric power sector, we would expect this to make up a bigger fraction of the final energy demand in future than it does now (going from ~20% to maybe 50%). It seems that there are many studies that show that it is possible to fully decarbonise using renewables, but that this becomes increasingly expensive as renewables start to make up more than about 50% of the energy market. This is because dealing with their variability requires the installed capacity being higher than the peak demand, a huge expansion of the transmission capacity, and the development of significant energy storage facilities.
The general view seems to be that if you want to decarbonise in a cost effective way, then this should also include firm low-carbon resources, such as nuclear, fossil fuel systems with CCS, bioenergy, and geo-thermal. However, these firm resources also have obstacles that need to be overcome. Some, for example, haven’t even been shown to work at scale, and there are societal/political reasons why it could end up being difficult to implement others. However, the paper points out that if we have a broad range options, then we can increase the chance of solving some of the poblems and over-coming some of the obstacles.
The basic picture seems quite reasonable to me. Renewables could make up a significant fraction of the energy mix, but if we want to minimise the costs then we also need to include some firm low-carbon sources. A key thing, in my view, is that we don’t have lots of time to develop the optimal solution before we go ahead and implement it. We really need emissions to peak soon and to then start reducing at a relatively rapid rate. Ultimately, if we wish to meet some of the targets, we need net emissions to get to ~zero within a period of decades. This paper seems to suggest that we’re already in a position to get started with this, even if ultimately getting to zero net emissions requires overcoming a number of challenges.
I hope I’ve provided a reasonable summary of the paper. I’ll stop here and I’d be interested in any comments from those who might have more understanding of this topic than I do.