Increased spending on renewable energy infrastructure is a welcome step towards net zero, but the world must recognize that this will require significant investment to upgrade aging power grids.
Earlier this year, the world watched in shock as the Texas power grid was brought to its knees by some of the worst winter storms the state has ever seen. This summer, intense heat in the Pacific Northwest and New York prompted businesses and households to conserve energy to avoid widespread power outages.
In Europe, last month’s deadly floods cut power to hundreds of thousands in West Germany. Earlier this year, the EU said a power outage in Romania, coupled with a power outage and a lack of operating reserves in France, nearly caused a European power outage.
These incidents have clearly demonstrated the importance of a safe and stable energy supply. But the lingering risk of extreme weather events is far from the only challenge we face as the world moves to net zero. As the energy sector continues to bolster the resilience and efficiency of the world’s energy infrastructure, the road ahead may be difficult.
Europe and the US have some of the world’s oldest energy networks. Their cables have exceeded average life expectancy, and utilities and policymakers have agreed for years that aging power grid infrastructures need significant upgrades to meet future challenges. In addition, demand for electricity continues to rise, driven by population growth, emerging markets and new applications such as electric vehicles. With electricity demand expected to grow another 20 percent by 2030, the need to modernize these grids has never been greater. This growth isn’t just limited to Europe or the US – every country has to invest in grid upgrades.
Part of the answer is to build more connected, less centralized networks that allow countries to work together and share energy reserves when needed. Not only does this strengthen resilience to major weather events, it also helps to solve power outages by allowing neighboring countries to export some of their excess supply across borders via interconnectors.
Smarter grid management is also crucial. Advanced computer technology, artificial intelligence, monitoring and continuous digitization will contribute to more efficient power distribution. Underground cables, on the other hand, offer greater resilience, lower maintenance needs, and are less vulnerable to severe weather conditions.
It is not just about rolling out new infrastructure and technology, it is also important to extend the life of existing infrastructure. This lowers costs and minimizes the disruption and environmental impact of replacement. Better asset management techniques also enable smarter investments in replacing existing systems.
The fact that policymakers around the world have identified electrification as a critical part of the world’s clean energy drive is also increasing the need for new infrastructure. The renewed EU Green Deal prioritizes the integration of energy systems and offshore renewables as vehicles to deliver cleaner energy. COP26’s Energy Transition Council also aims to double the investment rate in clean energy by 2030. Meanwhile, the Biden administration in the US has started new offshore wind projects in the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico.
These plans are welcome steps in the right direction, but before we start boosting renewable energy production, we need to focus on future-proofing the electricity grid. This is a crucial step to ensure that the growing population can enjoy a stable supply of this electricity.
The wider electricity supply chain also faces challenges – no more acute than global copper shortages. Because copper is needed to manufacture power cables, a stable supply of the mineral is critical to global electrification. Demand for copper has more than doubled in the past 25 years and is expected to nearly double again in the next 10 years. Copper reserves are struggling to meet that demand, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned of an “imminent mismatch” between mineral supply and climate ambition. This is already driving up the price of copper, driving up costs for cable manufacturers, power generators, grid operators and ultimately consumers.
Industry can do its part to offset these rising costs, such as recycling copper in obsolete cables where possible. But it’s the changes throughout the copper supply chain that can make the biggest difference. The IEA has outlined a range of solutions to help strengthen mineral security, including diversification of supply sources, innovation at all points in the value chain and strengthening international cooperation. In addition, the alternative use of aluminum conductors has been promoted by various grid operators in the past.
We know the challenges. Extreme weather events will only become more frequent. Energy networks are outdated and need to be improved in terms of capacity, flexibility and resilience. And global copper shortages add an entirely new challenge as electricity demand continues to grow. But there are solutions and we must act now if we are to ensure that electricity can be delivered safely, reliably and efficiently to all corners of the world.