Energy Transition Has a Scale Problem — Part I
Getting to net-zero carbon emissions at the current pace is almost like trying to empty the sinking Titanic using buckets
I wish renewable energy transition was analogous to uninstalling the fossil fuel app on your phone and installing the wind and solar or clean technology app. Unfortunately, it is not. Our current efforts to get to net-zero carbon emissions are grossly inadequate. It almost feels as if we are like trying to empty the sinking Titanic using buckets.
The magnitude of the problem
The biggest question in the fight against climate change is not if we ever achieve carbon neutrality, but it is when. While 2050 has somehow become a global goal-post since the early 2010s, reaching the net-zero goal by that year is difficult and it is not because of a lack of technologies- we have all we need. However, I feel that a major bottleneck is the scale of transition that needs to happen.
For example, the current global production of hydrogen is about 100 Mt per year. Producing that much hydrogen via electrolysis requires 4500 TWh of electricity. Producing that much electricity from solar/wind at a 25% capacity factor needs 2 TW of installed capacity of wind and solar, which is almost the current installed capacity of wind and solar. So, we need the entire existing production of wind and solar just to replace today’s supply of ‘grey’ hydrogen with ‘green’ hydrogen. Hydrogen demand is expected to increase 300–400% by 2050, meaning we will need a total of 6–8 TW of solar/wind to produce green hydrogen. Similarly, as I calculated, we will need 29 TW of solar capacity to produce all our non-animal-based calorific needs via vertical farming. Even if we produce only 25% of non-animal-based food via vertical farming, we will need an additional 7–8 TW of solar capacity. To meet electricity needs for other purposes  from wind/solar, we will need an additional 15–20 TW of wind/solar, which for now excludes the implications of transportation and heat electrification.
Given the current annual installation rate of wind (approx. 100 GW) and solar (approx. 150–200 GW), and assuming a standard lifespan of 25–30 years, we will manage to install 8 TW of wind/solar by 2050. But, this will only be sufficient to meet the electricity requirements of green hydrogen, vertical farming, or 50% of our regular electricity consumption. This means that the current installation rate must at least increase 5–6 times to meet the need for electricity for additional purposes (e.g., green hydrogen, vertical farming, etc.).
But, hey, we are having the best years of solar and wind growth. While it is still far short of what is needed, so what? What is the issue? We can easily scale up our production and installation 3–4 times — not a big deal, right? Well, not really. Blaming everyone (corporations, politicians, the wealthy, etc.) is quite popular, but a deeper understanding of path dependency and carbon lock-in provides better insights into why things have been slow. In my next blog post, I will describe how a complex interaction of people, behavior, institutions, laws, regulations, etc. creates path dependence and carbon lock-in, which slows the transition to a sustainable and cleaner world.