Faced with a massive wave of hype for a new generation of “silver bullet” climate solutions, from green hydrogen to carbon capture to (relatively) small nuclear reactors, experts are pointing back to the established technologies that can already deliver on a decarbonization agenda while bringing solid financial returns to investors.
“As political clamour and determination to cut carbon emissions grows, so too has excitement around the prospects of game-changing technologies that can accelerate the process,” the Financial Times reports, pointing to “clean” hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS) as the lead contenders. “But there is a hitch: both of these technologies remain too expensive, and neither has yet been successfully deployed at scale. Experts say a focus on futuristic solutions distracts from the ability of the energy sector to significantly decarbonize power production by using readily available technology and ramping up the deployment of renewables.”
With solar and wind costs falling 90 and 60% respectively over the last decade, “I don’t think we need to wait—and I don’t think we can wait—for a silver bullet,” said Energy Transitions Commission Director Faustine Delasalle. “To some extent, the silver bullet that we needed, we already have—and it’s renewables.”
In the ETC’s view, that means the first priority on the road to net-zero emissions by 2050 is to scale up renewables production five- or six-fold from 2019 levels, while retrofitting buildings to reduce energy waste.
“This is really the low-hanging fruit that doesn’t require any major technology breakthrough,” Delasalle said. “It’s less sexy, but it’s available and it’s cost-competitive.”
Solid returns on investment also make the established renewables technologies “a more attractive bet for most investors than the likes of hydrogen and CCS, and other promising technologies even further behind in the queue like small scale nuclear, tidal power, and direct air capture of carbon dioxide,” the Times adds.
“The vast majority of the actual dollars are going to the things that may be less topical to talk about these days, which continues to be the construction of generation and transmission infrastructure—wind, solar, biomass,” Riverstone Holdings partner Alfredo Marti told the UK-based paper. “It also makes sense, because that is where the vast majority of the volume of dollars is required.”
Some analysts still see a role for carbon capture in allowing gas plants to balance the grid against the intermittency of solar and wind—though the Times article makes no mention of energy storage technologies that are coming onstream to address that issue. The other concern, though, is that a fully decarbonized grid would only deal with about two-thirds of final energy demand.
Which means that “to reach net-zero across the board requires addressing other sectors. Fuel cells powered by green or renewable hydrogen could be used in place of combustion engines, allowing heavy vehicles, ships, and even planes to shift away from oil-based fuel without relying directly on grid-supplied electricity.” But that won’t happen without a deliberate effort to drive down costs and increase supply—the same kind of early-stage support that brought wind and solar to where they are today.
“I think there will be a time where more institutional investors will be interested in hydrogen and carbon capture,” Delasalle said. “But it might come in seven or eight years, rather than immediately.” To get there, she added, “we need to build the business case—and to build the business case will need some public funding.”