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Making power systems more flexible as global energy transition accelerates

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The global energy landscape is witnessing a rapid and disruptive change driven by an unprecedented growth in renewables. Last year alone, a record-breaking 168 GW of renewable energy capacity were added globally – the sixth consecutive year in which additions from renewables have exceeded those from conventional sources. Today, a quarter of the world’s electricity comes from renewables.

But, the recent IPCC report has sent a clear signal and called for a scaling up of renewables both in the power and in end use sectors such as transport and buildings. This echoes IRENA’s own analysis which estimates that avoiding the worst effects of global warming will require to source 85% of global power and two-thirds of total energy supply from renewables by 2050. Around 60% of electricity would come from so called variable renewable energy (VRE) like solar and wind.

Experiences from frontrunner countries show that flexibility in the power system can help integrating solar and wind into the market.

Flexibility can be found in different parts of the power system including generation, grid, storage and end-users.

With today’s report on Power system flexibility for the energy transition and a new tool to assess the flexibility of the power system – the FlexTool – IRENA opens a new work stream that support its members in finding the most cost-effective mix of flexibility solutions. The tool has been applied jointly with IRENA members Colombia, Panama, Uruguay and Thailand to assess the flexibility of their power system based on the latest national plans.

Figure 1. Flexible Power System – Accelerated uptake of wind and solar 

Claudia Cabrera from the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mining (MIEM) of Uruguay, who presented the Uruguayan FlexTool analysis during the 16th meeting of the IRENA Council, said: “The FlexTool can assess in an integrated manner sector coupling alternatives, which is an aspect of great importance in an electric system like the Uruguayan characterized by energy surpluses. Therefore, the IRENA FlexTool can complement the existing planning toolkit by providing additional insights on flexibility and options to further increase it.” The Uruguayan FlexTool analysis concluded that Uruguay’s power system is flexible enough to accommodate the actual and future deployment of VRE resulting from the country’s long-term generation expansion plan.

Dolf Gielen, Director of IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Center added: “The new report showcases flexibility in all parts of the energy system. Findings show that the smooth integration of variable renewable energy into power systems requires innovations. Beyond technological solutions, flexibility can be unlocked through market design, operational practices and new business models.”

Demand has a significant potential to contribute to the flexibility of the power system – from quickly responding to supply shortages to following price signals in order to consume energy when it is cheaper, and the grid does not face congestion. A central element of flexibility is sector-coupling, the coupling of energy demand for heat, fuels and mobility by using power to heat (e.g. heat pumps), power to gas (e.g. hydrogen from renewable electricity) and power to mobility. Electric vehicles for example can act as battery storage devices if regulations and technologies are aligned and provide short term storage and grid services.

For more information, see Power system flexibility for the energy transition, including an Overview for Policy Makers, IRENA Flextool Methodology (coming soon) and two case studies.

IRENA

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Clean energy demand for critical minerals set to soar as the world pursues net zero goals

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Supplies of critical minerals essential for key clean energy technologies like electric vehicles and wind turbines need to pick up sharply over the coming decades to meet the world’s climate goals, creating potential energy security hazards that governments must act now to address, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency. 

The special report, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, is the most comprehensive global study to date on the central importance of minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements in a secure and rapid transformation of the global energy sector. Building on the IEA’s longstanding leadership role in energy security, the report recommends six key areas of action for policy makers to ensure that critical minerals enable an accelerated transition to clean energy rather than becoming a bottleneck.

“Today, the data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions,” said Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA. “The challenges are not insurmountable, but governments must give clear signals about how they plan to turn their climate pledges into action. By acting now and acting together, they can significantly reduce the risks of price volatility and supply disruptions.”

“Left unaddressed, these potential vulnerabilities could make global progress towards a clean energy future slower and more costly – and therefore hamper international efforts to tackle climate change,” Dr Birol said. “This is what energy security looks like in the 21st century, and the IEA is fully committed to helping governments ensure that these hazards don’t derail the global drive to accelerate energy transitions.”

The special report, part of the IEA’s flagship World Energy Outlook series, underscores that the mineral requirements of an energy system powered by clean energy technologies differ profoundly from one that runs on fossil fuels. A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car, and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a similarly sized gas-fired power plant.

Demand outlooks and supply vulnerabilities vary widely by mineral, but the energy sector’s overall needs for critical minerals could increase by as much as six times by 2040, depending on how rapidly governments act to reduce emissions. Not only is this a massive increase in absolute terms, but as the costs of technologies fall, mineral inputs will account for an increasingly important part of the value of key components, making their overall costs more vulnerable to potential mineral price swings.

The commercial importance of these minerals also grow rapidly: today’s revenue from coal production is ten times larger than from energy transition minerals. However, in climate-driven scenarios, these positions are reversed well before 2040.

To produce the report, the IEA built on its detailed, technology-rich energy modelling tools to establish a unique database showing future mineral requirements under varying scenarios that span a range of levels of climate action and 11 different technology evolution pathways. In climate-driven scenarios, mineral demand for use in batteries for electric vehicles and grid storage is a major force, growing at least thirty times to 2040. The rise of low-carbon power generation to meet climate goals also means a tripling of mineral demand from this sector by 2040. Wind takes the lead, bolstered by material-intensive offshore wind. Solar PV follows closely, due to the sheer volume of capacity that is added. The expansion of electricity networks also requires a huge amount of copper and aluminium.

Unlike oil – a commodity produced around the world and traded in liquid markets – production and processing of many minerals such as lithium, cobalt and some rare earth elements are highly concentrated in a handful of countries, with the top three producers accounting for more than 75% of supplies. Complex and sometimes opaque supply chains also increase the risks that could arise from physical disruptions, trade restrictions or other developments in major producing countries. In addition, while there is no shortage of resources, the quality of available deposits is declining as the most immediately accessible resources are exploited. Producers also face the necessity of stricter environmental and social standards.

The IEA report provides six key recommendations for policy makers to foster stable supplies of critical minerals to support accelerated clean energy transitions. These include the need for governments to lay out their long-term commitments for emission reductions, which would provide the confidence needed for suppliers to invest in and expand mineral production. Governments should also promote technological advances, scale up recycling to relieve pressure on primary supplies, maintain high environmental and social standards, and strengthen international collaboration between producers and consumers.

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Global e-commerce jumps to $26.7 trillion, fuelled by COVID-19

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Parts of the online economy have boomed since COVID-19 began, while some pre-pandemic big-hitters have seen a reversal of their fortunes in the last year, amid widespread movement restrictions, UN economists have found.

According to UN trade and development experts UNCTAD, the e-commerce sector saw a “dramatic” rise in its share of all retail sales, from 16 per cent to 19 per cent in 2020.

The digital retail economy experienced most growth in the Republic of Korea, where internet sales increased from around one in five transactions in 2019, to more than one in four last year.

“These statistics show the growing importance of online activities”, said Shamika Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics. “They also point to the need for countries, especially developing ones, to have such information as they rebuild their economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The UK also saw a spike in online transactions over the same period, from 15.8 to 23.3 per cent; so too did China (from 20.7 to 24.9 per cent), the US (11 to 14 per cent), Australia (6.3 to 9.4 per cent), Singapore (5.9 to 11.7 per cent) and Canada (3.6 to 6.2 per cent).  

Online business-to-consumer (B2C) sales for the world’s top 13 companies stood at $2.9 trillion in 2020, UNCTAD said on Friday.

Bumpy ride

UNCTAD also said that among the top 13 e-commerce firms – most being from China and the US – those offering ride-hailing and travel services have suffered.

These include holiday site Expedia, which fell from fifth place in 2019 to 11th in 2020, a slide mirrored by travel aggregator, Booking Holdings, and Airbnb.

By comparison, e-firms offering a wider range of services and goods to online consumers fared better, with the top 13 companies seeing a more than 20 per cent increase in their sales – up from 17.9 per cent in 2019.

These winners include Shopify, whose gains rose more than 95 per cent last year – and Walmart (up 72.4 per cent). 

Cashing-up

Overall, global e-commerce sales jumped to $26.7 trillion in 2019, up four per cent from a year earlier, the UN number-crunchers noted, citing the latest available estimates.

In addition to consumer online purchases, this figure includes “business-to-business” (B2B) trade, which put together was worth 30 per cent of global gross domestic product two years ago.

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COVID-19 has reshaped last-mile logistics, with e-commerce deliveries rising 25% in 2020

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COVID-19 has shifted the way people buy goods, accelerating the rise in online shopping and e-commerce deliveries. According to a new report from the World Economic Forum, this has led to a 25% rise in consumer e-commerce deliveries in 2020.

The new report, Pandemic, Parcels and Public Vaccination: Envisioning the Next Normal for the Last-Mile Ecosystem, explores changes seen over the last year which will greatly influence last mile deliveries in the future. For example, it’s expected that 10%-20% of the recent increase in e-commerce deliveries will continue after the pandemic and the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Covid-19 shutdowns have completely reshaped how we live and of course this includes how and what we’re buying,” said Christoph Wolff, Head of Mobility, World Economic Forum. “Leaders must consider and respond to the effects COVID-19 has had on e-commerce deliveries and what impact these changes will have on their cities and communities.”

Beyond rising demand, the past year has also seen a large shift to greener delivery options, with wider spread EV across the industry and more stringent carbon emission rules from cities expected to shape delivery networks in the near future.

Overall, the report finds six main structural changes to the delivery and logistics sector that are expected to last:

Six structural changes

The pandemic has caused an increase in last-mile deliveries that are likely to persist.
In 2020, business-to-consumer parcel deliveries have risen by about 25%. The report suggests that part of this increased demand will be durable, with at least 10%-20% of the growth remaining post-pandemic.

Consumers increasingly buy new types of products online and consider environmental and health impact when buying.
As consumers continue to buy a wider array of goods online, they are also becoming more ecologically aware. For example, 56% of millennials cite environmental protection as the reason for choosing alternatives to home delivery.

Decarbonization of last-mile deliveries has accelerated.
Companies and cities have ramped up commitments to make emission-free deliveries, while many pandemic-related economic stimulus packages, especially in the European Union and China, contain provisions to support green mobility and goods transport.

Faced with budget challenges and increased transport needs, cities steer last-mile transitions.
Many cities, like Seattle and Boston, have started to repurpose kerb space to designated delivery pick-up. Others, including Santa Monica and Amsterdam, are taking bold action on cleaner delivery with “zero-emission delivery zones” and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Proven technologies are fuelling the last-mile ecosystem revolution.
While disruptive new technologies, such as drones and delivery robots, will continue to emerge, the last-mile revolution is happening now as proven technologies scale up. The likes of parcel lockers and data sharing for load pooling are being adopted around the world as the costs of implementation decrease

New business models emerge to meet increased demand for sustainable delivery vehicles.
Certain logistics companies are now offering services to online retailers, which will help them identify the delivery routes most suited to make the immediate transition to electric delivery vehicles.

Last mile for vaccines

While ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines remains the most pressing issue in global vaccine distribution, effective last-mile delivery is another critical issue for countries. The key challenges are cold storage, second vaccine dose needs, and a disconnect between the vaccine and patient journey.

“Governments and logistics companies could think about teaming up with players who are experienced in managing very local, capillary demand and with integrating a large number of local retail outlets,” says Anja Huber, Engagement Manager, McKinsey & Company. “Examples include large online retailers, eGrocery giants and technology platform players”

Potential solutions countries can implement for efficient vaccine delivery include real-time logistics planning, data integration, centralized management of delivery strategies at the national level and many more.

There are also early examples of countries that have handled this challenge particularly well. While there are many factors in vaccine distribution success, broadly speaking, countries with tight integration of healthcare and logistics stakeholders seem to show the highest national vaccination rates two months into 2021.

These include Israel, the UK and Chile outperforming other countries with more decentralized healthcare systems, like the US and Germany, which had slower initial vaccine rollouts.

Clearly, much still needs to be done to ensure developed countries overcome operational issues with vaccine delivery. However, mobility solutions should not overshadow an even larger ethical challenge in the differences of vaccine access between the global north and global south, which is a priority for greater equity.

Future of the last mile

The impact of COVID-19 on the last-mile delivery has accelerated existing trends across the sector, leading to six structural changes expected to shape the future of last mile deliveries.

These will be part of a broader urban mobility transition, driven by public policy and company actions. As cities and logistics leaders continue the sustainable urban delivery transition, close public-private coordination will be critical. Zero Emissions Urban Fleets (ZEUF) network, for example, provides a relevant dedicated stakeholder platform for this work.

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