Bridging the net-zero power gap

05 April 2023
While total net-zero power production is the long-term goal, consideration must also be given to how electricity can be generated in the interim

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Except for Qatar and Kuwait, GCC states have committed to net-zero emissions targets by set future dates. For Oman and the UAE, this is 2050 – with the latter targeting a carbon emission cut of 23.5 per cent by 2030 – while for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the deadline is 2060.

Theoretically, by these years, each of the four nations will have most of their electricity generated from renewable or alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind and nuclear, or be able to capture any carbon produced from gas-fuelled power facilities.

The hard reality is that electricity production requires a certain amount of baseload capacity to ensure supply can match demand during peak periods, particularly during the hot summer months. 

An inherent drawback to renewable energy is that its electricity generation cannot always be guaranteed. For example, solar plants cannot produce power at night, and wind farms cannot function on windless days. Battery energy storage systems can help store some electricity. However, the technology is still in its infancy, and it will be some time before it is reliable enough for baseload production.

So even if the GCC gradually builds enough renewable energy capacity to cover demand, it will likely need to use existing gas-fired assets for the foreseeable future.

Accelerating the transition

Bridging this gap between the thermally produced power of today and the required renewable energy net zero of tomorrow was the topic at a recent MEED broadcast titled ‘Accelerating the Energy Transition’.

Held in collaboration with General Electric (GE), a panel of experts comprising regulators, policymakers and turbine manufacturing specialists discussed power turbines’ role going forward and solutions to minimise their carbon impact.

One fast-growing potential is the installation of carbon capture and storage units at power plants and industrial facilities to remove harmful gases during the electricity-generating process. The carbon dioxide captured can then be stored or commercialised to effectively make the power produced net zero.

“First, we ask ourselves, ‘How do I improve the efficiency of the asset for every percentage point and get a reduction in emissions while achieving more power?’” said Gagan Porwal, head of international market partnerships – carbon solutions at GE Gas Power. 

“You next go to more medium-term solutions involving capturing carbon that can be stored. It’s then a case of selecting which rotating assets can be decarbonised over the coming decade. And this is where you start seeing the value of carbon capture systems and associated technologies.”

Hydrogen fuel

Aside from carbon capture, another rapidly emerging segment is using green or blue hydrogen as a carbon-free fuel. Today, turbines can run on a blend of natural gas and hydrogen, or hydrogen alone, to produce clean electricity.

“In the end, the goal is the same,” Porwal added. “Whether using hydrogen as a fuel or stripping away the carbon in the combustion process, it’s all about the situation each country faces and what options it wants to adopt. 

“But regardless, our turbines are absolutely ready to use different fuels, and indeed we have multiple decades of experience in doing just that.”

Achieving decarbonisation goals through energy transition is a very complex challenge that requires careful planning, investment and innovation
Abdelmuti Ahmed, UAE Ministry of Energy & Infrastructure

Smart grids

A third option is the development of smart grids and automation systems that can reduce the amount of electricity used in homes and cities. Using technology to improve efficiency will also limit emissions. 

“The power sector accounts for almost 40 per cent of total emissions,” said panellist Abdelmuti Ahmed, head of energy strategies and policies at the UAE Ministry of Energy & Infrastructure. “Achieving decarbonisation goals through energy transition is a very complex challenge that requires careful planning, investment and innovation.

“One of the major focuses in this effort is making the grid more adaptable to new technologies, particularly for renewable energy as it becomes increasingly prevalent. We therefore need to implement multiple structural changes, including the development of new infrastructure, and to accommodate new technologies, such as smart grids and microgrids.”

Financing questions

With all three options capable of happening in tandem, the question turns to how such actions can be financed. 

Ahmed Badr, director of facilitation and support at the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), argued that ultimately any investment must be made in coordination with the private sector and have the right regulatory and legal conditions to succeed. 

“We see that more than 75 per cent of investment happening globally is coming from the private sector,” said Badr. “Therefore, it’s important to have a sound bankable structure to ensure an acceptable level of return to true sustainability. Likewise, this bankability must have sound, environmental and social factors that promote sustainability and biodiversity balance.”

From a power perspective, several complex, interconnected factors need to be considered on the journey towards net zero. But what is clear is that success will only be achieved through collaboration by key stakeholders.

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