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Green grids, global warming and the Gulf

The Energy Industry Times-2May23
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Green grids offer a viable way to drastically reduce carbon emissions. Ideally situated between Europe and Asia, the Gulf region could act as a bridge linking a global network of green grids – desert solar could be delivered to Europe by day, with European and North African wind energy transmitted eastwards during the night. The Climate Parliament’s Nicholas Dunlop and Dr. Sergio Missana, explain.

The 1.5°C limit is achievable. But it will take a quantum leap in climate action,” said UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, in response to the latest report published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report, signed-off by governments worldwide, found that the risks of global warming were greater than was thought at the time of the last assessment in 2014, with some regions already having reached the limit of what they can adapt to.

To avoid climate catastrophe, humanity must stay within a safe carbon budget. However, between the slow pace of government action, a lack of funding, and an unwillingness to divest from fossil fuels at the pace required, current climate change initiatives are caught between a rock and a hard place, with millions of ordinary people paying the price.

As it stands, fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – supply around 80 per cent of the world’s energy, propelling the world quickly towards what are described as irreversible climate ‘tipping points’, the points at which various changes to the climate would become permanent (or at the very least, long-term). In order to avoid this reality, greenhouse gas emissions would need to peak before 2025 and fall by 60 per cent by 2035. However, governments’ national emissions reduction plans are already falling short, and at our current rate we are on track for warm- ing of about 2.8°C by 2100. To avoid global disaster, governments need to make drastic changes in favour of reducing our global carbon output.

Challenges to what has been the global modus operandi for the past 150 years will undoubtedly be disruptive. However, solutions do exist. Harnessing the huge potential of renewable energy sources in order to meet global needs will require both significant political will and resources to build the necessary large-scale infrastructure. Practically, there needs to be a collective adoption of renewable power globally, from small-scale projects such as rooftop solar and mini-grids for rural communities, to a massive expansion of large-scale solar and wind power projects in prime locations.

The best locations for huge solar power stations are, obviously, deserts, where strong sunshine is combined with cheap land, and where covering large areas with solar panels or mirrors does not displace food production. Alongside this, the best locations for wind infrastructure are often equally remote, such as Patagonia, the south coast of Morocco, or indeed offshore.

However, solar and wind production in a single location is variable. Wind comes and goes. The sun rises and sets.

For renewable energy to provide a reliable source of affordable energy 365 days a year, energy-rich locations need to be linked to populations, cities, and industry by grids in order to combine different energy sources in different time zones into a reliable 24/7 supply of clean energy for all.

Whilst energy storage and other energy sources will have a key role to play in this, large-scale continental ‘green grids’ will be essential for this transition.

A key geographical area that could benefit from this infrastructure is the Gulf region.

As it stands, the Gulf region includes five of the top ten oil-producing countries and is responsible for 27 per cent of world production. However, what if instead of centring their economic output on fossil fuels, these countries reinvested their resources in clean energy? The Gulf region, with its vast deserts and year-round sunshine, is a prime location for the extensive solar farms necessary for humanity’s growing energy needs.

Ideally situated between Europe and Asia, the region could act as a bridge linking the global network of green grids; desert solar could be delivered to Europe by day, with European and North African wind energy transmitted eastwards during the night. This mutually beneficial exchange of energy could be replicated around the world. Namibian coastal wind and desert solar could be delivered to the big cities of Southern Africa, Australian desert solar transported to Southeast Asia, and Patagonian wind brought to South America’s metropolitan hubs.

Deserts, such as those found in the Gulf, are home to almost infinite solar resources that have remained relatively untapped. The world’s largest single site solar farm is already located in Abu Dhabi, but this is still a largely domestic facility which can be replicated at real transformative scale.

All the energy humanity uses in a year is equal to the energy that reaches the earth from the sun in a single hour. We can tap into this energy cost effectively. Solar and wind power are already the cheapest energy sources in the world, and as technology improves, prices will decrease further. But despite the enormous potential lying dormant in solar, we are yet to see any meaningful action towards fully realising its potential. To do so, we will need to establish the grids and technology that would make this resource available to all.

In order to achieve this, we need new transmission lines crossing frontiers and connecting different time zones, creating a global ecosystem of interconnected renewables and a new energy market built to operationalise, and seize the opportunity in, a net zero future. This must be combined with expanded and modernised national and regional grids and complemented with the rapid scale-up of mini-grids and off-grid solar solutions.

The open secret is this technology does exist and is already widely used. High voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines can transport energy over long distances – overhead, underground, or underwater – with little energy loss. Clean energy highways can be built rapidly using undersea cables to help avoid delays and the public opposition that overhead lines often encounter.

Fundamentally, the grids of tomorrow will also have to be designed to handle a significant increase in the electrification of an energy system powered by renewables, and will therefore need to be ‘smart’, decentralised, and digital. Integrating billions of rooftop solar panels, wind turbines and storage systems into the grid will require cutting edge technology and techniques, the likes of which will only be deployed with appropriate political and financial backing.

Organisations like the Climate Parliament are fighting to make this a reality. At COP26 in 2021, the Prime Ministers of India, Samoa and the United Kingdom, and Ministers from Australia, France, Nigeria, and the United States launched the Green Grids Initiative – One Sun One World One Grid. The Green Grids Initiative was first conceived by the Climate Parliament as a global coalition seeking to accelerate the establishment of renewable grids.

As an international network of legislators, the Climate Parliament works to enact a functioning solution to the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, centred on rapidly increasing political support for, and the development and use of, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

Despite positive steps being taken in this space, the pace at which work is being carried out is not as fast as it could, or should, be to avoid a climate catastrophe. If these projects are to succeed, there will need to be a lot more dynamism on the part of governments to really champion the cause.

As a result, the Climate Parliament has now established a series of green grids ‘accelerators’ focused on fostering close collaboration between business leaders, investors, governments, and legislators to create ‘project pipelines’ of green grid construction projects which can move rapidly from concept to completion.

These groups function to (literally) accelerate particular clean energy projects. They will open channels for governments, investors, industry leaders, legislators, and NGOs to become involved in green grid building, increasing the speed at which they can be built by enabling dynamic collaboration.

Furthermore, as an international network, the Climate Parliament is also working to increase cooperation with non-state actors such as universities and research institutions, who will be key players in the success of the establishment of these grids, as their ability to act independently endows them with a dynamism that national governments can often lack.

Combining the resources and stability of state actors with the speed and technical expertise of research bodies and private sector operators, who bring both skills, capital and existing adaptive infrastructure, will be key to making the energy transition a reality.

Climate change is a global problem, and as such, will require global solutions. Green grids present us with a viable way to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, increase global interconnectivity, and create a thriving green economy. It is now up to us, and our governments, to be bold, decisive and make it a reality.

Nicholas Dunlop and Dr. Sergio Missana are, respectively, Secretary General and Executive Director, of the Climate Parliament.

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