As we switch to cleaner energy, there are three dangers we must not overlook

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Demand for electricity could surpass demand for oil by 2040.
  • One-fifth of the world’s energy consumption is met by electricity.
  • The switch to renewable energy calls for greater focus on electricity security.

Electricity is essential to prosperous modern societies but, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), faces a range of threats.

Today, it accounts for around one-fifth of total energy consumption. However, demand is likely to increase by about 50% and may outstrip the demand for oil by 2040, the IEA believes.

The report, called Power Systems in Transition, highlights some of the changing trends in energy generation and consumption and calls out some of the key challenges to be overcome.

Three of particular importance, according to the IEA, are:

  • The danger of cyberthreats.
  • Extreme weather and climate change.
  • Making sure the electricity infrastructure can cope with the coming transition.

The themes discussed in the report are part of a wider dialogue on reducing global emissions through the adoption of cleaner energy. They also form part of the World Economic Forum’s Race to Zero, a global campaign to bring public and private sector decision-makers together to gain a deeper understanding of the energy transition.

Cyberthreats

Cyberattacks are one of the greatest and most likely forms of risk the globe faces, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2020. For the electricity sector, falling prey to a sustained cyberattack could have devastating consequences for electricity users. As well as homes and individuals, there is also risk of disruption to a range of critical infrastructure and emergency services.

environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables plastic plastics Weather extreme storm hurricane typhoon flooding flood floods danger rain wind windy rainy flash floods Agriculture pollen insects bugs bees honeybees bumblebees farming farms crops crop stable
Cyber attacks have been increasing. Image: IEA

An attack on the electricity network in Ukraine in 2015 left 225,000 customers without power and is thought to have been the first such attack on a nation’s utilities.

The IEA warns that there is a lack of comprehensive data on the number of cyberattacks on electricity networks, and says inconsistencies in the reporting of attacks make it difficult to assess the scale of the problem. The number of potential targets for hackers is growing all the time with the advent of digital transformation. From smart meters and connected thermostats to distributed energy storage, electricity is becoming an internet-enabled sector.

Climate and weather

Average global temperatures are rising. Rainfall is unpredictable. Flooding and drought are becoming more common. The effects of climate change have been well documented. But what’s less widely known is the way changing climate patterns can cause problems for electricity systems, the IEA says.

“In many countries, the increasing frequency or intensity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, wildfires, cyclones and floods are the dominant cause of large-scale outages,” the report says. It also describes how service disruption caused by wildfires and heatwaves in Australia and on the West Coast of the US demonstrates what can happen when climate-related problems occur.

Electricity security during the energy transition

There are a number of important structural changes taking place across electricity generation and supply, with the traditional centralized model gradually being replaced by a mix of centralized and distributed power. This is due, in large part, to the growth of renewables.

environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables plastic plastics Weather extreme storm hurricane typhoon flooding flood floods danger rain wind windy rainy flash floods Agriculture pollen insects bugs bees honeybees bumblebees farming farms crops crop stable
Share of renewables in the lobal energy mix. Image: IEA

Wind, wave, and solar electricity generation don’t conform to that old centralized model. Not only do they take place in a variety of locations but the amounts of energy they produce can vary too. The IEA estimates that by 2040, “the average annual share of variable renewables in total generation would reach 45%.”

Integrating variable sources into the power grid is possible, but it requires investment in equipment, facilities and technology. And policy-makers may need to amend regulations and guidance to ensure new, flexible power storage and distribution technology can be developed and integrated at speed.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

“Maintaining reliability in the face of greater supply and demand variability will require greater and more timely investments in networks and flexible resources,” the Power Systems in Transition report says. But it also notes that investment in electricity grids has been declining by 16.3% since 2015.

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