A Brief Look at the Future of Clean Energy

Although, globally we have realised the need for transition to clean power years back, our move towards this direction is still too slow. We have to speed up our initiatives to translate our thoughts into actions. As it is a global issue, all nations have to play a role in this journey… - P. K. Chatterjee (PK)

Just a few months back, during COP 27 in November 2022, we have seen that globally we are still far behind the set target for achieving our clean energy transition goals. Although, many countries are now coming forward with new projects, there is no doubt that globally we need to highly speed up our actions in this field.

The recent report on clean energy transitions from International Energy Agency (IEA) is also containing many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ as they are also not completely satisfied with the overall global initiative to harness clean energy. In the last more or less two years, when globally we were focusing on fighting corona-pandemic-related issues – and many of the power-hungry industries were either kept in shut-down condition or running at the minimum capacity, we did not realise the pressure, however now, as in most of the countries the industries are getting back their original vigour and/or expanding, everywhere the demand for energy is shooting up.

To control the current situation, many new fossil-fuel-based power plants are being planned or commissioned in a hurry – as we are still far off from harnessing enough amount of clean energy right at this moment. Today, I’ll try to present here a brief account of the global status quo in this regard – based on IEA’s recent report titled, ‘Energy Technology Perspectives 2023.’

Where do we stand now?

As per IEA’s observation, “The energy world is in the early phase of a new industrial age – the age of clean energy technology manufacturing. Industries that were in their infancy in the early 2000s, such as solar PV and wind, and the 2010s, such as EVs and batteries, have mushroomed into vast manufacturing operations today. The scale and significance of these and other key clean energy industries are set for further rapid growth. Countries around the world are stepping up efforts to expand clean energy technology manufacturing with the overlapping aims of advancing net zero transitions, strengthening energy security and competing in the new global energy economy. The current global energy crisis is a pivotal moment for clean energy transitions worldwide, driving a wave of investment that is set to flow into a range of industries over the coming years. In this context, developing secure, resilient and sustainable supply chains for clean energy is vital.”

Obviously, to grow and sustain, the clean energy industry will need more investment in the coming days, but at the same time, we will have to focus on developing sound supply chains. We have to work on to get away from the present state of monopoly as still now the manufacturing of clean energy components is highly concentrated within some nations.

What do we need to do?

The IEA report suggests, “Every country needs to identify how it can benefit from the opportunities of the new energy economy, defining its industrial strategy according to its strengths and weaknesses.”

Although a few countries are naturally blessed to be abundant with the raw materials for this industry, others too can play vital roles to add value to the raw materials. Especially, the scope for R&D and specialised manufacturing of final components is open to all.

The IEA report has provided a comprehensive inventory of the current state of global clean energy supply chains, covering the areas of mining; production of materials like lithium, copper, nickel, steel, cement, aluminium and plastics; and the manufacturing and installation of key technologies. As a roadmap to the future, the IEA report has mapped out how these sectors may evolve in the coming decades as countries pursue their energy, climate and industrial goals.

What kinds of opportunities are lying ahead?

The report has pointed out, “There is a global market opportunity for key mass-manufactured clean energy technologies worth around USD 650 billion a year by 2030 – more than three times today’s level – if countries worldwide fully implement their announced energy and climate pledges. Related clean energy manufacturing jobs would more than double from 6 million today to nearly 14 million by 2030, with over half of these jobs tied to electric vehicles, solar PV, wind and heat pumps. As clean energy transitions advance beyond 2030, this would lead to further rapid industrial and employment growth.”

Transporting, assembling, commissioning, operating and servicing the clean energy components will open up a new vista of opportunities in the emerging industry. Trained professionals and technicians with versatile skill-set will be in great demand – as this industry is a combination of applied mechanical, electrical, electronics and other sciences. Thus, field-oriented training & skill-set builders too will also find a big opportunity in this industry in the coming days.

What are the risk factors?

The IEA report states, “China currently dominates the manufacturing and trade of most clean energy technologies. China’s investment in clean energy supply chains has been instrumental in bringing down costs worldwide for key technologies, with multiple benefits for clean energy transitions. At the same time, the level of geographical concentration in global supply chains also creates potential challenges that governments need to address. For mass-manufactured technologies like wind, batteries, electrolysers, solar panels and heat pumps, the three largest producer countries account for at least 70% of manufacturing capacity for each technology – with China dominant in all of them.

The geographical distribution of critical mineral extraction is closely linked to resource endowments, and much of it is very concentrated. For example, Democratic Republic of Congo alone produces 70% of the world’s cobalt, and just three countries account for more than 90% of global lithium production. Concentration at any point along a supply chain
makes the entire supply chain vulnerable to incidents, be they related to an individual country’s policy choices, natural disasters, technical failures or company decisions.”

As I have stated above, dependence on a particular nation or region imposes multiple risks. Nobody had foreseen the Russia-Ukraine conflict to take this shape as we are witnessing today. Thus, we have to meticulously look for alternative arrangements. Although that work has got started and researchers are now focusing on alternative minerals, (say) for examples: sodium for EV batteries, perovskites for solar cells etc., the pace of their development for commercial deployment must be increased.

Final remarks  

Every global crisis opens up a new door as far as development of technologies is concerned. But we must learn from the history. Analysing the impact of Russia-Ukraine war, World Economic Forum (WEF) stated, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created shock waves in global energy markets, leading to price volatility, supply shortages, security issues and economic uncertainty. Poorer countries will bear the brunt of the negative consequences of the energy crisis.”

We should not forget that. Owing to some special advantages, globally we are concentrating a bit more on solar energy, however, we have to more intensively carry out research works on other natural resources too – like geo-thermal and tidal sources. Especially, in this regard, the age-old practice of harnessing the wind energy should be encouraged – both at commercial as well as domestic scale.

Most of us are used to see horizontal-axis type of wind generators, however, for low-power systems that can be installed on tall buildings in every urban area, vertical-axis type wind generators are more suitable.

In the forthcoming era of decentralised power generation (even Net Metering with Grid Service), we have to focus more on small scale generation systems too. Mother earth gives certain things freely to all, why shouldn’t we use those to meet our individual need of electric power?

By P. K. Chatterjee (PK)

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