COP26, getting to net-zero: How clean electricity can be crowdsourced by digitalizing the grid

  • Oct 19, 2021
  • ABB

In just two weeks, the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 begins, hailed as “the world’s best, last chance to get runaway climate change under control”.

As world leaders converge on Glasgow to tackle the climate crisis, we face a pivotal moment in history. After auspicious beginnings in January of this year, with every major world leader announcing ambitious new net zero targets, we have seen a spike in carbon emissions predicted to be the second biggest in history, as vast portions of stimulus funds have flowed into fossil fuels to jump-start economic recovery. The Sixth Assessment Report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reminded us once again that we must accelerate our climate efforts, if we plan to meet our net zero targets, keep global warming to 1.5°, and avert severe consequences for humanity.

The good news is that we already know the solution that would get us three-fourths of the way to net zero: clean electrification.

Clean electrification of transportation, heating in buildings and industry would eradicate fully 73.2% of global emissions, and the IEA announced clean electrification as a top investment priority for reaching net zero by 2050. Of course, the word “clean” depends first and foremost on completing the transition from fossil fuels to zero-carbon energy in our power grids, the source of that electricity. If we want the next decade of electrification to count, it has to be clean.

Just 20 years ago, the mass deployment of solar and wind energy was inconceivable to most people. Today, the cost of utility-scale solar energy generation is now cheaper than fossil fuels in many countries. Still, with only 29% of global electricity generated by renewables in 2020, the job is not finished. US President Biden’s proposal of a Clean Energy Standard requiring 100% zero-carbon generation in every US state by 2035 is one of many national initiatives designed to finish the job.

We know that renewable energy generation continues to play a major role in providing clean electricity. However, the shift from fossil fuel combustion in centralized power plants (which provides controllable and consistent output) to renewable energy (which is variable and less controllable) creates a challenge for existing grid infrastructure. The grid was designed to capture and deliver a consistent, predictable flow of electricity, and right now it can’t capture the full 29% of renewable energy generated globally. We cannot afford to lose that energy.

To fix that, we will need to incorporate digital technologies that make the demand flexible enough to accommodate the fluctuations in generation.

Digitalization also offers a historic opportunity to change the way we think about electricity. Instead of one-way delivery, today’s grid has the potential to offer a two-way exchange to virtually every electricity user. The evolving power grid supports both new demand sites, like electric vehicles (EVs), as well as new electricity input sites in the form of distributed energy resources (DERs), including smaller wind farms, home solar panels, hydrogen fuel cells, battery storage and EVs with vehicle-to-grid charging.

It’s a profound development that offers the chance to crowdsource for net zero, by empowering everyday citizens to shift from pure demand and consumption to prosumerism – that is, both producing and consuming electricity, and even selling it back to the grid.

1. We must establish oversight and management of the evolving power grid, including distributed energy resources, to harness its full potential to generate and deliver decarbonized energy.

2. Smart grid technology must be used to enable flexible demand, with the aim of integrating more renewable energy, while increasing grid resilience.

3. We must digitally retrofit aging infrastructure or replace it with digitally-enabled equipment, to make the grid more resilient and reliable in the face of increased climate stress, rising electricity demand and greater overall dependence on electricity.

4. We must remove barriers and revise regulation to empower all stakeholders to become active contributors to a net zero power grid, both existing stakeholders (such as utilities) and emerging stakeholders (such as aggregators, prosumers and microgrid operators).

5. We must leverage smart grid technology to develop new market signals that make it easier to measure and invest in a net-zero electricity market.

6. To make a net zero grid affordable for everyone, we must develop new business models, like energy-as-a-service, which transfer capital expenditures and risk to institutional investors.

7. We must ensure that the $260-820 billion to be invested annually in grid infrastructure from now to 2030 is dedicated to technologies, value propositions and business models that support a net-zero future.

8. We need an official system architect function, with the competence and authority to oversee the development of an integrated net-zero energy system that benefits all people.

9. Standardized audits must be implemented that use newly available system-wide data to ensure transparent and timely reporting against national and international net-zero targets.

A net-zero future by 2050 is possible, and it is the energy transition in the power grid itself which lies at the heart of that goal.

In two weeks, at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), we ask world leaders to commit to a new focus on empowering the demand side of clean electrification. For climate action to work for anyone, it must work for everyone. Why not put the power to achieve net zero in the hands of every citizen using electricity, everywhere in the world?

We invite electricity users around the world to learn more about becoming active net zero contributors, in the new report Getting to Net Zero: Increasing Clean Electrification by Empowering Demand, published today by the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Clean Electrification.