Catastrophic weather has become increasingly common. Human-induced climate change presents a huge threat. This fact becomes ever clearer with each major weather event. Meanwhile, the global population is increasingly reliant on power and grid connectivity. Utility companies will be amongst the first to face the realities of our new climate and how they respond might provide a road map for others.
The first months of 2020 have done little to inspire environmental optimism. The Australian wildfires were unprecedented, burning a fifth of the country’s forest and leaving 33 people (and a billion animals) dead. Storms Ciara and Dennis resulted in extreme flooding in the UK, and the IPCC has estimated that the country will see a 10% rise in annual average rainfall by 2100. A storm in the south-eastern US left five people dead and 300,000 without power.
Passively expecting a technological breakthrough that can turn back the clock on centuries of multiplying carbon emissions is a particularly self-deluding brand of brinkmanship.
Utility tech against climate change focuses on efficiency
New technologies in the utility industry have been considered powerful tools against climate change. Grid ‘smartening’, it has been suggested, can support climate action by driving greater efficiency. A smart grid uses the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve automation in power networks. Features such as demand response improve grid flexibility, which allows for greater integration of renewable energy.
Smart meters help consumers make informed decisions about their energy consumption. Smart, energy-efficient appliances will limit power consumption. The expansion of IoT devices will facilitate speedy resolutions to power outages. Distributed energy resources (DER) will be more easily integrated into the grid. Greater connectivity will enable prosumers to sell any excess power they generate back onto the grid.
Efficiency can encourage increased consumption
However, there is little evidence to suggest that efficiency will drive lower energy consumption. The Jevons paradox suggests the exact opposite. Instead, it holds that the rate of resource consumption increases as efficiency is improved. Greater energy efficiency does not necessarily correlate with lower total energy use or, by extension, carbon emissions.
Data centres, for example, require vast amounts of energy and huge investments have been made to improve their efficiency to cut costs. Improved affordability improves data centres’ accessibility, driving greater use. Shifts to ‘clean’ technologies such as electric vehicles will also increase power demands and are only as clean as the energy used to power them.
Efficiency will not stop climate change alone. An efficient coal station is no substitute for a solar plant. Carbon emissions will not be cut to the levels required to avoid irreversible environmental damage by ‘efficiency’ because global demand for energy will continue to increase.
More ambitious policies are required
Policies such as a carbon tax, massive investment into green energies, improved energy storage solutions (crucial for renewable energies), and an end to oil and gas subsidies might help. A far greater share of the global power profile must be renewable. However, current performance is well behind targets. According to the Climate Action Tracker, only Morocco and Gambia are on track with their 2015 Paris Agreement target of 1.5C. A New York Times investigation uncovered that the US would need approximately 120,000 new wind turbines and 44,000 large solar power plants within a decade to meet the targets. This would have to match the speed of China’s best years of building renewable energies.
New technologies have a role in a climate-friendly economy but we cannot rely on tech-induced salvation. Incremental change will be too little, too late. Instead, wide-ranging policies must be introduced to change the grid’s over-reliance on carbon-intensive energy.