Skip to main content

Is electrification the route to a net zero carbon future? Part 1

Net Zero Carbon By Peter Ridge, Associate Director, Power – 11 October 2022

Glowing electricity cables suspended between pylons against a night sky


Peter Ridge in a white open collar shirt and suit jacket in front of a brick wall

Peter Ridge

View bio

The system we have, the change we need.

There are some burning questions many people have about our energy future, for example, how do we need to adapt today’s electrical systems to meet our net zero targets? How do our current electrical systems fit into the whole energy system? What do the energy systems of tomorrow look like? What are the 4D’s that are quite commonly referred to in discussions around decarbonization and energy transition? And how do we get from today’s carbon intensive energy system to the net-zero energy system of the future?

There is no quick and easy answer, so we will step through the electrification dilemma in three parts, beginning with a high-level overview of our current energy systems.

In part two of this series, we’ll progress onto a review of the technologies/tools needed to facilitate the transition - including demystifying some of the ‘buzzwords’ used in the net-zero energy landscape. Then finally, we’ll explore distribution, including the need to ensure that those parts of the world that are in energy poverty are able to share in the renewable future equitably.

Our current energy system

The necessity to reduce carbon emissions needs no introduction or discussion - it is widely accepted that we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to limit the effects of global warming, which threatens the existence of humankind and other life on earth.

The term we hear daily is net zero carbon (NZC). But this begs the question as to why 'net' and not ‘absolute’? It is an acknowledgment that absolute zero carbon is not possible in all walks of life, but it can be reduced to the extent that the residual emissions can be offset by methods that remove carbon from the atmosphere (such as planting trees, filters that extract carbon from the atmosphere, or evolving technologies such as carbon capture and storage).

Energy systems are the arteries of our modern society, but they don’t need to be 'net carbon positive'. In fact, based on the effects of global warming that we have seen in the recent past such as the European heatwaves of 2022, rising sea levels and their impact on Pacific islands, stronger and frequent hurricanes, etc., we cannot afford to continue living with a carbon intensive energy system.

Along with the net-zero ambition of the energy system, the 4Ds represent another current paradigm shift that directly affects our future energy system. The 4Ds are very commonly referred to by net zero energy system commentators and represent Decarbonisation, Decentralisation, Digitalisation and Democratisation. The 4Ds along with a net-zero ambition present to us a sustainable future, but with a transition path full of challenges that involve a constant need to innovate and change the status quo.

Simplistically, today’s energy systems have three main elements;

  1. Energy generation
  2. Energy demand
  3. Energy transportation (which links generation to demand)

The future energy system is expected to continue this model but with evolved roles and functions for each of the elements.

An energy flow chart showing present day and 2050

Figure 1 indicates the energy flow system of today and shows how it will need to change in a net zero carbon future. Energy flow diagram in present day and 2050 (Source: IEA)

It is obvious that we cannot simply switch off fossil fuels and switch on renewables and consider the job done. There are many technical considerations and demand factors that also need to have engineering smarts applied to them – and that’s the topic of Part Two of this series.