The role of electrical grids in achieving global climate goals

The role of electrical grids in achieving global climate goals
Electrical grids

The world is abuzz with the green energy revolution, as countries worldwide pour their resources into renewable energy sources like wind and solar. However, a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) has brought to light a major obstacle that could derail our progress in achieving global climate goals: our outdated and struggling electrical grids.

The IEA’s report paints a bleak picture of the situation. It reveals that there are currently over 3,000 gigawatts (GW) worth of renewable energy projects waiting in line, with 1,500 GW at the brink of implementation. To put these numbers into perspective, this amounts to five times the combined solar PV and wind capacity installed last year. However, these projects are trapped in endless queues, desperately waiting to be connected to the existing electrical infrastructure.

These figures may even be underestimated since the IEA’s data only covers countries that account for half of the global wind and solar capacity. The true number of projects stuck in limbo could be significantly higher.

The climate crisis at stake

The consequences of these grid delays are nothing short of catastrophic. The IEA warns that these bottlenecks directly undermine the global objective of limiting temperature rise to a critical threshold of 1.5°C. Why is that? Well, slower integration of renewable capacity translates to a slower adoption of green energy and an ongoing dependence on fossil fuels.

In a hypothetical scenario modeled by the IEA, where grid development lags behind, emissions would far exceed the 1.5°C target. The report predicts that cumulative CO2 emissions from the power sector would be a staggering 58 gigatonnes higher in this scenario, compared to a scenario aligned with national climate targets. This would push the global temperature rise well beyond the 1.5°C mark, with a 40% chance of exceeding 2°C.

Electrical grids: the wind energy predicament

While many countries have placed wind energy at the forefront of their renewable strategies, even this sector would suffer greatly from slower grid development. The IEA’s report suggests that wind capacity additions would fall 15% short of the promised targets by 2030 and nearly 20% short by 2050.

This is not just a hypothetical issue. The report highlights real-world examples, such as South Africa’s failure to award any onshore wind capacity in a recent renewable energy tender. The proposed projects were located in areas without grid availability, rendering them futile.

The IEA estimates that, in order to meet national and global climate goals, we need to add or refurbish over 80 million kilometers of grids by 2040. This is equivalent to completely overhauling the entire global grid.

From a financial standpoint, this means investing a whopping $600 billion per year in grid infrastructures by 2030. This is a striking contrast to the declining investments observed in developed economies over the past decade.

Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the IEA, aptly captured the gravity of the situation, remarking, “It’s like you are manufacturing a very efficient, very speedy, very handsome car – but you forget to build the roads for it.”