Clean Energy Postpandemic

We are living through an event that will forever change humanity. When it’s over, there will be new timestamps for the planet — before COVID-19 and after. As of this writing, the pandemic continues to take its toll. Confirmed cases worldwide have surpassed 4 million, with more than 300,000 deaths attributed to the disease.

Beyond the impact on human health and world economies, the events of the past few months are having a direct effect on the environment. With one-third of the planet under lockdown, Mother Nature is getting a respite. By now, we have all seen images comparing the skyline views of major cities before and after lockdown. The air is cleaner with humans staying home.

As humankind begins to enter life after the pandemic, it’s worth noting that some aspects of “normal” should be reconsidered — and how we produce energy should be high atop the list.

A new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows the pandemic’s impact on energy demand. The report is based on an analysis of more than 100 days of data and includes estimates for how energy consumption and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions trends are likely to evolve over the rest of 2020.

The report shows that worldwide energy demand declined by 3.8% in the first quarter of 2020. Countries in full lockdown experienced an average 25% decline in energy demand per week and countries in partial lockdown averaged an 18% decline.

A drop in electricity demand results in a drop in fuel consumption, with coal taking the hardest hit. The IEA report shows coal usage fell by nearly 8% compared with first-quarter 2019. Oil demand was down roughly 5%, followed by natural gas, which saw a 2% decline. Renewables were the only fuel source that saw a growth in demand during the 100-day reporting period.

Looking ahead, the IEA forecasts electricity demand to remain below modern-day averages through the remainder of 2020.

With drop in demand comes a decline in emissions. Global CO2 emissions are expected to decline by 8%, or almost 2.6 gigatonnes (Gt), to levels of 10 years ago. The IEA reports that such a year-on-year reduction would be the largest ever, six times larger than the previous record reduction of 0.4 Gt in 2009 — caused by the global financial crisis — and twice as large as the combined total of all previous reductions since the end of World War II.

In previous crises, however, the rebound in emissions after a crisis has been larger than the decline, offsetting any gains in emission reduction.

Unless the wave of investment to restart the global economies includes improvements to energy infrastructure, we stand to return to “normal” pollution levels. Renewable energy continues to make gains in the global energy mix, but until the Holy Grail of energy storage is discovered, renewable sources are fraught with limitations.

Studies show that the US saw a 93% increase in the amount of storage deployed in the third quarter of 2019, compared to third-quarter 2018. The market value for energy storage is forecast to increase from US$720 million today to US$5.1 billion in 2024. Driving such growth is an increased focus on adding renewable energy sources to the nation’s grid.

It is estimated that 120 gigawatts of storage will be needed across the US by 2050. The country currently has 22 gigawatts of storage from pumped hydropower, and another gigawatt in batteries.

The US Department of Energy Global Energy Storage Database counts nearly 700 storage projects announced, operational, or under construction across the United States that rely on myriad technologies. In addition to batteries, the storage methods include ice, pumped hydropower, heat, chilled water, and electrochemical. At the moment, there is no clear winner, and new technologies are constantly being proposed.

We are still a long way from renewables. Until energy storage reaches a point where it can support long periods without recharge, natural gas remains the cleanest solution for energy. It is the planet’s best bet to lowering emissions and keeping pollution levels in check when we emerge from lockdown.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Third Coast Publishing Group and/or Gas Compression Magazine. (In other words, questions and concerns should be sent directly to the author. Praises and accolades should be sent to company management.)