27 March 2024

COP28 Series: Energy And Energy Efficiency

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Last year's 28th edition of the conference of the parties was notable for the pledge in the final draft of the agreement to "transition away" from fossil fuels.
United States Energy and Natural Resources
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Last year's 28th edition of the conference of the parties was notable for the pledge in the final draft of the agreement to "transition away" from fossil fuels. Whilst many parties were unhappy that the statement was not stronger, this still represents a big step in the global transition towards net zero. However, given that renewable energy only made up 7.5% of our current primary energy usage (total energy used at source) in 2022, there is clearly some way to go before we can complete the switch to a new energy paradigm based on renewables. Transitioning away from our fossil fuel based world will require large gains in the world's capacity to generate energy renewably and also to use the energy we produce more effectively. At COP28, world leaders agreed to both triple global installed renewable capacity to 11,000GW, and double the global average rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030.

The targets at COP28: Renewable energy

Meeting the target to triple renewable generation capacity could bring the share of green energy to almost 80% of the total electricity generation, a recent report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates. It is generally considered that the technology already exists to meet this target; IRENA thinks that most of it will come from wind and solar. The challenges are therefore not at the generation level, but are more focused on how to install it and make it work. Chief among the problems already being experienced and tackled are grid connectivity and smoothing out the power generation.

Wind and solar power bring with them highly variable levels of output. This creates a significant challenge in connecting and integrating new renewable generation to existing power grids. Further, the distribution of renewable generation, particularly when selecting sites based on generation potential, means that power is being generated in locations that often do not have the level of infrastructure needed to support large scale power production and distribution, and which are remote from the end users. The variability (and less-controllable nature) of renewable energy production also means that energy supply is rarely precisely matched to demand.

Over 11,000 families of patent applications filed internationally for grid infrastructure and storage technologies were published in the decade between 2010 and 2020 according to a report from the EPO, showing a huge amount of ongoing innovation in this area. Widespread adoption of technologies such as smarter power grids and storage techniques like super-capacitors, large scale battery storage or more exotic solutions like geothermal storage or long-term mechanical energy storage will be key to enabling the desired tripling of renewable capacity.

The targets at COP28: Energy efficiency

The second pledge from COP28 makes a less dramatic headline, but is no less significant. Using the energy we produce more efficiently means we can reduce our reliance on carbon-emitting sources of power sooner. Global energy intensity is a measure of how much economic output each unit of energy produces. In 2022 the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the rate at which this energy intensity improved was just over 2%. If the world sticks to its pledge and doubles this to over 4%, by the end of 2030 the world will have improved our energy intensity by more than a third relative to today, i.e. each unit of energy will create a third more economic output; or alternatively the same economic output could be achieved with three-quarters of the energy consumption needed today. The IEA estimates that this change would "lead to energy savings in 2030 equivalent to all the oil that the global road transport sector consumed in 2022."

The good news is that many technologies which would enable us to meet this goal already exist. The IEA analysis indicates that that this target could be achieved if every country adopts standards in line with: current lighting standards in South Africa; building codes in Türkiye; air conditioner regulations in China; car fuel economy standards in the United States; electric motor regulations in the European Union and policies for heavy industry in India.

Beyond 2030 and the path to Net Zero

Looking further ahead than the 2030 targets set at COP28, the UK is currently committed to meeting net zero emissions by 2050. Even considering the developments in emission abatement technologies like carbon capture, to meet this target it is likely that the vast majority of our energy will have to come from renewable sources. According to an estimate by the UK FIRES research programme, at the current rate of advancement the renewable capacity of the UK in 2050 will be around 60% of our current energy usage from all sources. To meet the net zero target without a large drop in our quality of life, it will therefore be necessary to substantially increase adoption of renewal generation, and/or find ways to use much less energy than we do presently.

There are some obviously targets for improvements in energy efficiency: the electrification of road transport, itself an important part of the energy transition, has the capacity to deliver large improvements. A battery powered or fuel cell electric vehicle typically uses 2-3 times less energy than one powered by internal combustion. Even the most advanced internal combustion engines only reach around 40% thermal efficiency, whereas most electric motors have efficiencies of over 70% and can reach over 90%, and so can be considerably more efficient even when the upstream losses in the generation and supply of the electricity are considered. Regenerative braking allows energy that would otherwise be wasted to be returned to the batteries. However, continued advances in infrastructure and manufacturing are likely to be necessary to ensure that electrification is practical and affordable. The number of patents being filed related to electric vehicles has risen steadily in the last decade, with the advancement of solid-state batteries a particularly active area at the moment.

Another obvious target area is domestic heating. Almost half of energy in the UK is used to heat our homes and buildings and at present, almost three quarters of domestic heating comes from gas boilers. While the best boilers are extremely efficient, transferring up to 90% of the energy released by burning the gas into interior heating, they do not hold a candle to heat pumps. Heat pumps work on the same principle as a fridge in reverse, using electricity to take heat energy from the air or ground and use it to heat buildings. Using electricity to move the heat around in this way is much less energy intensive than converting energy directly into heat. Heat pumps can have efficiencies of well over 100% in terms of the heat energy delivered compared to the electrical energy required. The best heat pumps currently on the market can provide the equivalent of up to 350% of the amount of electrical energy consumed as usable heat. The number of patent applications filed globally related to heat pump technology accelerated strongly towards the end of the last decade, with as many patents being granted from applications filed between 2015 and 2018 as in the preceding decade combined.

The challenges that remain for Net Zero

Despite the opportunities and optimism in the above fields, there remain some significant problems in achieving a net zero scenario that have not yet been fully solved. At present there are no truly net zero solutions operating at scale for decarbonising either air travel or commercial shipping. Given that 8.6 billion air passenger trips are forecast for 2023 and 80-90% of international trade by bulk volume is carried by sea, finding a way to enable the transition of these areas away from fossil fuels is an important task. However, these are particularly challenging sectors: both aviation and cargo shipping require high energy density and aircraft in particular have a a large premium on weight. This presents significant barriers to the employment of battery electrification as is being used elsewhere in the transport sector. Whilst reduction technologies (such as a potential re-emergence in the use of "sails" to assist the powering of commercial shipping) will assist in the transition, they will not themselves address the underlying needs.

One particular strand of technological development is the production of "green" hydrogen, and fuels derived from it. Green hydrogen is hydrogen produced by various means (such as the electrolysis of water) using renewable energy. The hydrogen produced can be used directly as a fuel or further processed to produce ammonia or synthetic hydrocarbons (which have higher energy densities and are more readily stored and transported). Patent applications being filed for technology in this sector are also on the rise, with granted patents in the fields of hydrogen powered planes and ships increasing from 22 and 8 respectively in 2010 to 87 and 33 in 2020, according to analysis undertaken by the EPO and IEA.

The task of cleanly producing the hydrogen to power aviation and shipping in this way is also an important are of ongoing research. As discussed above, green energy is likely to be at a premium in the early stages of the net zero world, with many competing demands. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that the production of green hydrogen for these end applications (and other industrial applications) is achieved as efficiently as possible. Innovation in hydrogen electrolyser technology is at an all-time high, with 162 families of patent applications filed internationally being published in 2020 (EPO and IEA again). Current electrolyser efficiency is around 80% compared with the theoretical maximum of 94%, and scaling our ability to produce clean hydrogen cheaply could help solve the currently problematic aviation and shipping industry transitions.

Thus energy, and its often less-appreciated sibling efficiency, are likely to continue to be key areas for continued research as we look to meet the objectives of COP28 at both a global and national level.

J A Kemp LLP acts for clients in the USA, Europe and globally, advising on UK and European patent practice and representing them before the European Patent Office, UKIPO and Unified Patent Court. We have in-depth expertise in a wide range of technologies, including Biotech and Life Sciences, Pharmaceuticals, Software and IT, Chemistry, Electronics and Engineering and many others. See our website to find out more.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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