Electrifying the future: Challenges and solutions for scaling up clean energy

Electrifying the future: Challenges and solutions for scaling up clean energy 1536 856 ITCC


The future is electric. 150 years after electricity gradually changed power generation, we explore how replacing fossil fuel power with electricity from renewables is essential for reducing emissions and increasing energy security.

A second electric transportation revolution is gathering pace. Just as electric trains slowly replaced steam engines throughout the 1900s, the rapid rollout of electric vehicles (EVs) and its infrastructure is a signifier of the wider momentum towards electrification replacing fossil fuel technologies.

Other areas in industry where technologies using fossil fuels are used to generate power are also slowly being replaced by their electric equivalents. This quickening is good news for climate goals. By 2030, global demand for fossil fuels must be cut by a quarter to stay on target for net zero by 2050 – the roadmap set out by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Part of the solution is to move rapidly towards a low-carbon energy supply powered by electricity from renewable sources to ensure breakthroughs like EV hit their emission-cutting potential.

Electricity currently accounts for 20% of global energy consumption. More efforts are needed to get on track with the Net Zero by 2050 scenario, electricity used in total energy consumption needs to increase by 4% each year to at least 26% in 2030 and 49% in 2050.

Roadmap to decarbonizing electricity

These efforts will require nothing short of the complete transformation of the global energy system, according to the IEA.

Energy production needs to be decarbonized by increasing the share generated from renewable energy from roughly 14% to 60%. And the growth in demand for electricity is currently outpacing the growth in renewable supply.

“Electrification is only part of the solution, you need to first figure out where the power is coming from” according to Saifur Rahman, 2023 IEEE President and CEO, and Director of the Virginia Tech Advanced Research Institute.

Speaking at our recent webinar The Promise of Electrification, Rahman spoke of the need to promote clean technologies.

To achieve the deep transformation of the global energy system to renewable energy, we need to ensure the availability of that energy. That’s where batteries come in. It is not only electric vehicles (EVs) that need them, the power grid does too, and its storage capacity is on the rise. Emerging technologies can also help ensure both increased clean energy generation and availability.

Rethinking the grid: Upgrading and decentralizing power

Generating clean, renewable energy for electricity is a big challenge, but so is getting that electricity to where it is needed. Nearly 760 million people worldwide still do not have electricity, with sub-Saharan Africa accounting for about 80%. Many without an electricity supply live in remote areas or conflicted-affected zones around the world. By 2030, the 2050 net zero scenario calls for the roll out of universal access to electricity. This would require an investment of USD 30 billion each year on average.

At the same time, the increase in electrification in emerging markets and developing economies might still come at the cost of an increased generation of electricity using non-renewable sources. Interestingly, emerging markets and developing economies will also see the sharpest increase in the demand of renewables.

Secondly, where electricity is readily available, the infrastructure needs a major overhaul. To meet clean electric energy targets will involve adding or upgrading more than 80 million kilometres (nearly 50 million miles) of grid infrastructure by 2040. This is something European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson has acknowledged Europe must do. Globally, the IEA estimates that investment in power grids needs to double to more than $600 billion a year by the end of the decade.

Could decentralized microgrids and local generation play a pivotal role in the electrification transformation and provide power to those without it – offsetting some of the predicted rise in non-renewables in emerging markets and developing economies?

In South Africa, small, independent power grids, called microgrids, power remote villages that don’t create enough demand to attract investment, which would then bring a power line and increase grid optimization.

Another example according to Saifur Rahman is government solar incentives: “The problem with solar energy is that you still need power at night. If you don’t have battery storage, that’s when you have to hook up to the power grid and the power company charges a lot of money for that supply.” One incentive in Hawai’i allows residents to add energy storage to their solar systems, giving them the option to use stored power in the evenings to reduce costs. It is a good example of distributed independent electrification, where power is generated and distributed on a smaller scale, typically not relying on a centralized power grid.

Local solutions can stimulate big changes

Alongside microgrids and local power generation there is another change taking place in the energy landscape: the emergence of transactive energy models. In communities dotted with windmills, solar panels and other local sources of energy, homeowners are empowered not only to be energy consumers, but also producers. This encourages sharing and trading of energy amongst members of the community. Those generating more than enough energy for their needs are able to share or sell their excess directly to others or back into the local grid.

It is a system that can help save money on energy bills, distribute excess energy efficiently, and provide a way for the electric utility to better manage the grid. Rahman cites a new Smart Neighborhood in Alabama, USA as an example of the growth in transactive energy. It’s a network of 62 homes with a community microgrid that helps optimize resource use for the community, and reduce costs for homeowners and the power company.

The advantages of a transactive energy model is echoed by Francisco Laverón Simavilla, Iberdrola Direction of Energy Policies Head of Energy Policy: “This is going to be good for electricity cost, it is going to be good for electricity security, and is going to be good for the sustainability of the energy system.”

Meeting the world’s electrification needs will require huge investment, policy adjustments, and social acceptance. But overcoming the current challenges will bring big benefits in energy efficiency, cost reduction, and resilience as we work towards a more sustainable future.

  • The solutions and challenges for scaling up clean energy electrification were explored in our recent webinar: The Promise of Electrification, the first in the IEEE webinar series Empowering the Green Tech Revolution: From Design to Deployment. [watch here]