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Addressing the unintended consequences of decarbonisation

Engagement Director

Decarbonisation: The quest for clean energy requires us to untangle the web of unintended consequences. It's like trying to solve a puzzle while simultaneously creating new pieces

Decarbonisation – the reduction or elimination of carbon dioxide emissions from processes like manufacturing or the production of energy. How is this achieved? Simply, stop burning hydrocarbons and switch to renewable sources of electricity. Sounds simple and something we should be doing on a large scale since yesterday, right? Right, but there are some unintended consequences we should be mindful of when making this rapid shift.

With electrification comes the need to rapidly expand the quantity of electricity produced and distributed through our national grids. The IEA predicts that global electricity demand will reach 38,700TWh in 2050 (compared to 23,000TWh in 2019). This is an almost doubling of demand driven primarily through electrification of surface transport and buildings. Here, we encounter the first unintended consequences: i) copper demand rises to 53m tonnes per year – more than all the copper consumed between 1900 and 2021, ii) increased land use to deploy low-carbon solutions like wind and solar plants.

So, if we just assume for a moment that we can overcome the above two issues, we sadly run immediately into others…

Even wind and solar, the cleanest, lowest cost means of producing renewable electricity (today), aren’t without downsides when it comes to other factors such as end-of-life disposal or embedded carbon. First generation photovoltaic cells (based on crystalline layers of silicon) are essentially a composite of glass, aluminium, silicon, silver, and copper. These materials need to be separated at end of life to enable effective recycling of their raw materials into new cells. Second generation, thin film, technologies aren’t much better. The same goes for wind energy – the largest glass fibre turbine blades will often end up in landfills, polluting our environment.

Whilst effective recycling solutions are developed for wind (apparently Vestas has cracked this now, likely driven by calls for an EU wide ban of landfilling blades), we also need to consider the challenges associated with the intermittency of supply from renewables and the large-scale stationary storage that will be required to smooth that supply. If chemical (battery) systems are deployed, similar challenges exist – they require mined metals (I could write a whole blog on the challenges associated with Lithium and cobalt mining in particular) and are potentially challenging to deal with at end of life. Or we could make use of hydrogen as a storage medium in times of electricity oversupply, or for use as an alternative energy vector – electrolysing water to produce H2, but we hit another unintended consequence! We don’t have enough platinum or iridium to produce the number of PEM electrolyses we need meet our demand for hydrogen by 2050, using today’s technologies at least.  

What are we left with? A global society whose copper demand outstrips available supply to produce, distribute, and use the low-carbon electricity that we’re all shouting for, and a demand profile that our technologies cannot match without exposing other unintended consequences.

All is not lost. There are already technologies under development that address these unintended consequences or avoid them altogether, be it technologies that can effectively recycle wind and solar assets, battery chemistries based on abundant zinc that can store and distribute the intermittent production of electricity from renewables, wood-based materials replacing steel and concrete in wind turbine towers, or graphene doped aluminium to replace copper as a means of moving electrons around. You might be thinking “that’s all well and good, but technology can’t solve all of our problems, we need a societal shift, too”, and you’d be right. Prevention is better than cure, after all, and that starts with reducing consumption.  

For inventors and entrepreneurs going about busily creating hard technology businesses, stop and think long and hard about the unintended consequences of your decisions and routes your solutions will take at scale. Don’t make it someone else’s problem because that’s pretty much what got us into this mess in the first place.