Why The World Needs Low-carbon Electricity

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This article was originally published on Shrink That Footprint
by Lindsay Wilson

Low carbon electricity is a wonderful thing, and will be a central part of tackling climate change.

In 2010 electricity generation was responsible for about 13 Gt of greenhouse gas emissions, or a little bit more than a quarter of all emissions. The rest came from industry, transport, buildings, agriculture, forestry and waste.

The thing that is exciting about electricity from a climate standpoint is that we actually have technology which can slash its emissions. To help provide some clarity and context as to the relative importance of low carbon electricity this post tests a simple idea.

What would global electricity generation emissions look like if the world used just one generation technology?


In 2010 the world generated 21,400 TWh of electricity which resulted in emissions of 13 Gt CO2e (the beige balloon) given the current fuel mix. Using the central estimates from the IPCC’s excellent meta-study of electricity generation lifecyle assessments we can estimate what these emissions would look like using just one technology.

The results are stark.

Using Coal 21,400 TWh would result in 21 Gt CO2e, for Oil it is 18 Gt and for Natural Gas it is 10 Gt.  In contrast Geothermal and Solar PV are 1Gt, Solar CSP is 0.5, Biopower and Nuclear 0.4, Wind 0.3, Ocean 0.2 and Hydro 0.1 Gt.

The gap between fossil fuels and the rest is a chasm.

These numbers deserve some global context.  To have a decent chance of keeping climate change to 2ºC we need to cut global emissions to something like 20 Gt CO2e by 2050, and down towards zero by the end of the century.  That is down from 50 Gt in 2010.

If we clicked our fingers tomorrow and switched all the coal, gas and oil electricity generation in the world to low carbon sources, we’d still be at 37 Gt.  A long way from a stable climate.

But the 13 Gt we currently emit isn’t where the abatement potential of low carbon electricity ends.

A further 20 Gt of current emissions result from transport, industry and buildings.  Large swathes of which have the potential to be electrified and benefit from low carbon electricity.

The remaining emissions from deforestation, agriculture and waste need their own solutions.   And when you consider that energy demand is likely to increase by 50-100% by 2050, we could really do with some negative emission technologies too.

You see, low carbon electricity really is a wonderful thing.

Are you getting any?

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21 thoughts on “Why The World Needs Low-carbon Electricity

  • Interesting to see this claim that the much ballyhooed “bridge fuel” natural gas is still 77% as bad as business as usual but a 50:50 split of wind and solar would be 5% of BAU.

    • 77% as bad as if we used 100% coal?

      But that’s not how a bridge fuel works. A bridge fuel fills in the gaps when wind and solar aren’t producing.

      Figure that the wind blows in good sites more than 50% of the time. Call it 50%. And the Sun shines, on average, about 20% of the time. That’s 70%, take away 10% for when wind and Sun overlap.

      Now we need a fill-in, a bridge for the other 40%. At least until we’ve got storage. 40% of 77% is 31%. By moving from coal to wind + solar + NG we’d end up with about one-third as much ‘bad’.

      • 77% of the “Actual Electricity Emissions in 2010” balloon.

        I think its more common among the fossil fuel shills to refer to bridge fuel with the argument that we can burn gas instead of coal on the way to getting to renewables.

        • Well, if it was a 100% NG replacing 100% coal we wouldn’t be much improved. NG gives more heat with less CO2 and you avoid the extra nasties that coal brings us but much of the CO2 gain is wiped out by methane leaks.

          How about calling it a fill-in bridge while we wait for better storage? ;o)

          • I believe balancing power is usually called reserve power, as in spinning reserve or supplemental (non-spinning) reserve or replacement reserve. Bridge power usually means just what Ross says.

            The real extent of methane leakage is still very much under debate as far as I can tell.

          • The issue over methane leakage is whether the leakage is big or really big. We know there’s a lot of methane release with oil extraction. We know that there’s significant methane leakage during NG well drilling. And our distribution system leaks.

            I use the term “bridge” for NG because I view it as a bridge we can use to get us off coal. It can be used to fill in around wind and solar while we wait for better storage to come to the grid.

            I’m using the term in about the same way as Ross, but I accept NG as a necessary evil much like chemo and radiation for cancer treatment. I’ll take a modest amount of NG use over a larger amount of coal use if the net GHG result is less.

          • The real problem is that the fossil fuel industry has more political clout than does the government (so do the banking industry and the health care industry including health insurance but those are other issues). The only way out I can see is to buy fossil fuel as reserves at a high enough price to give fossil fuel firms somewhat more profit than with business as usual to console them for having to cut way down on extracting and delivering fossil fuel. Then maybe fossil fuel firms will calm down enough to let us replace fossil fuel with renewable energy.

          • The fossil fuel industry, coal at least, is losing political power to renewables. Multiple attempts by coal to create legislation blocking renewables at the state level have failed. In red states. Most recently a few days ago in Kansas.

            Coal has put their energy into creating and supporting the Tea Party and some of the most extremely right winged Republicans. The country, in general, has gotten fed up with the far right. Even seniors are deserting the Republican party.

            Oil is no position to stop EVs. There are too many organizations, universities and corporations developing batteries. Car companies don’t really care what propels their cars, they just want to sell cars.

            Coal companies will go broke. The smart ones will move what capital they can to other activities. The dumb ones will go bankrupt. We’re in line to see a massive drop in US coal consumption over the next 2-3 years with at least half of our coal burning plants closing.

            Oil companies have a good 20 years more of selling their product. It will take at least that long to get most of the ICEVs off the roads and replaced with EVs. And the smart oil companies will start moving their capital to other activities along the way.

            Nothing is going to stop rooftop solar. Once we bring the cost down to Germany’s price we will experience a tremendous solar boom in the US. Nothing is stopping wind, we’re installing a lot and starting to install off-shore.

            Very quickly renewables will have more political power than fossil fuels.

          • If we are lucky, economic clout from renewable energy becoming cheaper will trump political clout from past accumulations of money.

          • It’s happening. Of course we each could help push things a bit faster by contacting our elected officials from time to time and letting them know that we want more and faster progress.

          • I am too tired to write a coherent email to a politician right now; maybe next week.

      • The demand for heat energy (air conditioning, hot water, heating etc.) is higher than for pure electricity needs and heat energy can be stored cheaply (e.g. water tank or simply well insulated buildings).

        If we need to get rid off fossil fuels, the heating sector needs to be electrified anyway and this increases the demand response capability tremendously without having to worry about any new electricity storage.

        In addition, the car sector also needs to be electrified and this also increases the demand response capability without having to worry about any new electricity storage.

        Last but not least: Wind and PV can fortunately easily curtail their production if necessary and slightly overbuilding Wind and PV is easy and cheaper than investing in additional storage which doesn’t have a 100% efficiency anyway.
        (Example: Germany had too much Windpower last Xmas and had to reduce wind power production for a few hours. So what, that’s less than 0.05% of their yearly production.)

        • Yes, overbuilding wind and solar is cheaper than storage at this point in time. And EVs could soak up a lot of the over production if we provide both day and night places to plug in. We can store some of the excess production as heat or “cool” to help regulate building temperatures.

          But we will still encounter times when the Sun isn’t shining and the wind not blowing. We’ll need some sort of fill in. Later on that will probably be storage and possibly biogas but we have neither on line right how.

          What we do have is NG capacity. So that leaves us with a choice. Do we use 100% nasty coal or “40%” nasty natural gas?

          I really dislike NG, but I can’t find a reason to dislike it more than I dislike coal. So I’ll settle for a lesser amount of NG over a larger amount of coal. While I wait for better storage to become available.

          • As I just commented on another thread on this site, there is a workable answer. Build more over-capacity and use it to generate electrolytic H2. This becomes a backup fuel to replace NG so we are burning no FF at all. You have the initial capital cost (as with NG based power generation itself or with any storage method) but no fuel costs.

          • That works – if – the cost of water crackers is not expensive.

            If you’re going to run the H2 plant intermittently using only surplus electricity there’s going to be a lot of idle hours. In fact, your H2O cracker might sit idle all summer long.

            During windier parts of the year you’d probably only run at night and you’d likely be in competition with EV charging.

          • This is true of any operating reserve. If you go to the EIA site on US electric generation capacity, you see the total generating capacity is very close to 1 TW. If I recall correctly, our average power generation nationally is around 450 GW. I don’t recall seeing any figure for our national peak use, but it would presumably would not be much more than 550 GW. It sounds awfully wasteful to me to have all of that equipment spinning or sitting idly or under repair, but it is apparently how the system works.

          • I have heard on Care2 that Australia is seriously considering using solar PV to generate electricity and hydrogen fuel cells to store power for night use. Of course they have that Outback with 11-12 hours a day sunlight and not much else they can do with it since they ended up with too much salt in their soil from messing up with how they used irrigation.

        • Cars need to run on algal carbon-negative bio-diesel like what Algae Systems R&D for US Navy–hope to achieve cost-competitiveness with petroleum at a bout $10/gallon in 2016.

          • Way too expensive.

            By 2016 we are likely to have affordable 200 mile range EVs and liquid fuel will be used only in older vehicles.

          • $10/gallon would be a 200% increase over the $3.33/gallon price for home heating oil, (which is diesel minus the on the road motor vehicle fuel tax) that the organization I volunteer at is already complaining is so much they could buy a client a portable electric heater and help him/her with the electric bill cheaper than paying that for for heating oil to get through the winter. Since the coefficient of elasticity of demand for energy in general is -0.37, a 200% increase in price should cause a 74% decrease in physical quantity demanded, which should price nearly all private motor vehicles out of the market for fuel. Still, we need some way to capture and store carbon, preferably a way that is a replacement for a commercial product. I have already considered using CO2 as hydraulic fluid in enhanced geothermal systems, where it would cost three times as much to capture the CO2 with Global Thermostat as it would cost to drill the wells and frack the hot rock reservoirs.

      • Much of hydro-power has already degenerated to storage. A cute way to do a little energy storage would be to stack a big just below ground cistern, a big municipal water tank, and a wind turbine with a pump and a water turbine in the pipes between the cistern and the municipal water tank. When the wind blows, split the electricity generated between delivery to the grid and pumping water, when you lack both wind and sun run water from tank through water turbine to cistern to recover some electricity to deliver to the grid.

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