It seems that we have definitely embarked on the energy transition road. Never as in the aftermath of the COP21 in Paris has the world appeared more solidly united in supporting the objectives of a low greenhouse gas model of development, at the price of making categoric commitments, which were still particularly expensive at the time, to promote the spread of a cleaner form of energy. Since that day, costs have fallen significantly and production technologies have been further refined, yet the path taken still seems long and perhaps not so effective in the short term. But will it be the right one? We asked Francis O’Sullivan, research director at the MIT Low Carbon Energy Centers in Boston.
He is Director of Research for the MIT Energy Initiative, and a Senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He works on topics related to energy technologies, policy and economics. His current research is focused on unconventional oil and gas resources, particularly the productivity and economics of North America's shale resources.
Professor O'Sullivan, is the pace of development of renewable energies sufficient to guarantee an economically and environmentally sustainable future for the planet?
To be frank and direct I would say no. We are seeing an extraordinary movement in the right direction with regard to the adoption and use of new low carbon technologies, but this use will have to be significantly widened if we want to at least partially achieve the carbon emission reduction targets.
What aspect do you think will have the greatest impact on speeding up the spread of renewable energies?
I don’t think there is a single factor that can drive change on its own. In the future we will see exactly what has allowed us to get where we are today, which is a combination of reducing the cost of renewables, which favors their adoption, improving technologies, which allows further acceleration, and finally introducing specific market regulations. All these elements are needed to exploit the potential of these resources fully.
In your opinion, which areas of the planet or which countries can actually aspire to achieve significant targets in terms of creating low-carbon energy mixes in a relatively short period of time?
As far as geographical dissemination is concerned, I think we need to consider two existing scenarios. On the one hand there are developed countries―where the process is proceeding fast―which are reviewing their energy systems and gradually replacing their installed capacity. This is the case in Europe and North America. On the other are the emerging and growing markets―like India, China and Africa―where decisions are being made today about new additional capacity, which are perhaps more crucial. In my view, it is precisely here that the true potential lies, because if these countries decide to adopt low-carbon solutions, they will make a decisive contribution to the global transition. However, if they choose to rely on traditional technologies, we’ll remain tied to large scale carbon emissions for another twenty, thirty or forty years. This is why I believe it is essential to focus on emerging markets and ensure that these new technologies are adopted and implemented in their respective regions. As for developed countries, change is already under way and investments in new capacity show that Europe and North America are adopting low-carbon technologies almost by default.
The spread of renewable energy is also hindered by inefficient storage systems. What measures have been taken in this respect?
In a system that is strongly dependent on intermittent sources, storage is undoubtedly essential and the costs of such options represent a challenge. Significant progress has been made recently, for example, in improving the economic efficiency of lithium-ion batteries. These technologies are gaining more and more ground. However, it is clear that the range of storage needs is quite big and that lithium-ion technologies will not be able to satisfy all these needs. For this reason I believe it is important to continue to search for other technologies that may involve lower costs. This will ensure that when we need a very high storage capacity, we will have the technical options needed to allow a kind of efficient integration of renewable ones. Many are beginning to realize the need to achieve this balance and to continue investing. However, given the expansion of the lithium-ion technology market, which attracts large investments, the difficulty lies precisely in not losing sight of the broader picture.
In your opinion, will the countries that signed the Paris climate accord be able to bear the costs of their commitments in future?
Many believe that the commitments made and efforts to achieve large-scale decarbonization will be burdensome and will result in additional costs for several countries. I don’t see it this way. First of all, in many of these countries there is a strong growth in the demand for energy services, which will force them to invest in new capabilities and technologies. Furthermore, to date some of the low carbon and renewable technologies are, at least on the margin, competitive in terms of cost compared to traditional options. The difficulties lie in what I mentioned a bit earlier, namely in storage or, in a broad sense, in system integration. There remains a lot to do in this respect to ensure cost-effective integrable options. However, I am sure that if we manage to draw some momentum from the adoption of low carbon technologies, these options will become available and the nations that have taken on these commitments will be able to keep them. This is my hope and, despite the many challenges still to be overcome, I think we are on the right track.