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WIREs Energy Environ.
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Understanding constraints to the transformation rate of global energy infrastructure

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A massive transformation of the global energy supply system is required if deep reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions are to be achieved. A top–down review of historical data and energy forecasts provides a perspective on the magnitude of the challenge. Global engineering capability has expanded significantly over the last two decades, accommodating more than 100 GW/year increase in electricity generation infrastructure. However, business‐as‐usual demand forecasts to 2050 will require more than double the global rates of energy project execution. Transforming to a low‐carbon energy supply mix requires 30–70 GW/year of additional infrastructure, due to the increased reliance on intermittent renewables, and the earlier‐than‐expected replacement of existing coal power plants. Although all power systems share many similar subsystems that will need to be delivered regardless of the technology type, meeting the extra demands for engineering design, construction and/or supply chains may not be possible. The discussion focuses only on physical limitations of electricity generation, specifically around the timing and scale of retiring and/or replacing coal‐fired power generation capacity to meet the International Energy Agency's two‐degree scenario. We ignore the economics and politics of the transition scenarios and the transformation of the transportation and industrial sectors. What is clear is that the longer the delay in starting a significant transformation, the greater the challenge will become. Decision makers must understand the constraints to technology transitions to deliver effective policy. A broad international consensus is not required, instead reaching agreements and developing economically sustainable pathways to technology transitions in the United States, China, and India is more likely to be successful and the only means for significantly curbing global emissions. WIREs Energy Environ 2016, 5:33–48. doi: 10.1002/wene.177 This article is categorized under: Energy Systems Economics > Systems and Infrastructure Energy and Climate > Systems and Infrastructure Energy Policy and Planning > Systems and Infrastructure Energy Research & Innovation > Economics and Policy
Historical evolution of the automobile industry in China shown as a function of the thermal energy output of the engines. As a proxy for an ‘energy system’, each vehicle engine represents approximately 500 kW of thermal energy generation capacity (100 kW mechanical), hence the rapid growth since 2008 represents an annual output of 215 GW/year. The continuous line is the cumulative total capacity and is linked to the right hand side vertical axis.
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Historical rates of installing new fossil‐ and nuclear‐fuelled electricity generation plant over the last century. The bars and left‐hand vertical axis show the increase in (average) net installed capacity for each 10‐year period. The dotted line and right‐hand axis show the cumulative total installed capacity at each point in time. The rate for plants ‘under construction’ was calculated using the capacity under construction on the database and each category was divided by construction timespans used the upper bound of IEA/WEO14 (10 years for nuclear plant, 5 years for coal, and 3 years for oil and gas). Source: Global Data Power database
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Minimum age of coal‐fired power plant at the time of retirement obtained, from the default scenarios. The different shapes represent the different delay periods to the start date for the transformation. The different colours represent the different regions. China and SE Asia are the two regions with particularly young plants being retired, approximately 40 years old is the oldest plant.
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Overall (averaged) rate of ‘early replacement’ for the global aggregate, depending on the commencement year. The solid line represents the default assessment, and the dotted line represents all regions with natural retirement threshold of 70 years (this excludes United States and EU).
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‘Early replacement’ forecasts for the world, obtained by aggregating the forecasts of each region: (a) provides the default assessments; and (b) provides equivalent estimates, assuming the world makes no commitment to transformation until the year 2025.
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Early replacement forecasts for (a) United States and EU, and (b) India and China. The top row in each figure provides the default assessments. The bottom row, for each region, provides equivalent estimates, assuming the world makes no commitment to transformation until the year 2025. The vertical axis on the right are related to the bar graphs, which show the capacity retired in GW/year.
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Cumulative capacity of coal‐fired power plant as a function of its age, for the model regions other than the United States and EU. This regional curve is used in our forecasts to estimate the total plant capacity with age greater than 50 years. NR = Natural Replacement
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Relative importance of the regions adopted in this model for the forecasts of coal‐fired power infrastructure. (a) Current age distribution showing that only the United States and EU have substantial plant capacity older than 50 year. (b) BAU forecast for growth in coal‐fired power plant capacity, dominated by expansion in Asia. (c) Regional contributions (importance) to the reduction in overall coal‐fired power plant capacity between the BAU and GHG scenarios.
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The changing role for electricity, comparing forecasts for business‐as‐usual (BAU) energy system growth under a scenario that achieves greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation consistent with a 2 °C atmospheric temperature increase (ETP2014 study). (a) Compares total energy demand, showing the portion of overall change attributed to the different sectors. The inset provides the demand profile for the GHG scenario in the year 2050. (b) Provides a pathway to achieve the GHG mitigation scenario by reducing demand and shifting the generation from fossil fuels to fossil‐free technologies. (c) Shows the evolution of the energy generation mix for the GHG mitigation scenario (coloured areas). Also shown is the increase in capacity needed due to the removal of fossil fuels from the mix, e.g., the total installed capacity (in the year 2050) predicted for the GHG mitigation scenario is 0.7 TW higher than that for the ‘New Policies’ scenario (green dotted line), and 1.9 TW higher than that for the BAU scenario (black dotted line). Those increases represent an additional 17 or 49 GW/year (respectively) of infrastructure that must be constructed (on average) over the forecast period.
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