When e-mobility meets sector coupling

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

If there was a silver lining to the dark COVID-19 cloud that hovered over the world throughout most of the year 2020, it would be the reduction in CO2 emissions resulting from societal lockdowns across the globe. It is estimated that 7% less CO2 was released into the earth’s atmosphere in 2020, compared to 2019, due to reduced human activity during a year with travel restrictions, home office confinement, closed restaurants and nightlife, etc.

When there’s nothing to go out for, and air travel is out of the question, people don’t use their cars, and planes stay grounded. During the time of the year when COVID-19 was at its fiercest and most of the world was under lockdown, emissions from transport were halved. By the end of the year, total emissions were still 10% lower than the 2019 levels for road transport and 40% lower for aviation.

Since the Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 countries at the end of 2015, C02 emissions have only been on the increase, even though this increase has been lower than in previous years. 2020 was the first year to see an actual decrease. What the pandemic has made clear is that, while changes in behavior have an impact on CO2 emission levels, they are nowhere near sufficient if we are to keep the temperature increase at the 1.5C target stated in the Paris Agreement. With the world virtually coming to a standstill and only a 7% reduction to show for it, something more radical is required if we are to reach the Paris Agreement targets. Whichever way we look at it, a ‘technological fix’ is needed.

The potential of a transition to e-mobility

The transport sector accounts for around a quarter of the world’s total CO2 emissions. A report prepared by Navigant for Danfoss states that if all urban areas in Europe, China and US electrified their private and public transport, they would contribute to the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement with 28%. Add to this the improvement in air quality that would follow from abandoning fossil fuel-powered vehicles altogether: The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution is responsible for 6.5 million premature deaths every year – another good reason to make e-mobility a central element in the necessary green transition of the economy.

Talking of economy; The organization Transport & Environment has calculated that a transition to e-mobility has the potential to create more than a million new jobs in the EU alone by 2030. As power-electric technologies are rolled out, hands are needed for building and maintaining charging infrastructure, battery manufacturing, electric powertrain manufacturing, rail expansion, etc.

Opposing arguments state that a transition to battery-electric transport will make no difference to the carbon economy, as emissions will only be transferred to the power plants that generate the energy to power the batteries. This would of course be true if we assume that the world will remain powered by fossil fuels. Placing e-mobility at the heart of the transition to a green economy requires a simultaneous transition to fossil-free power generation.

Optimizing fossil-free power generation and sector integration

A hurdle in the transition to renewable energy is the weather. Turbines idling, when they could be generating megawatts of clean energy, are an only too common sight on wind farms, simply because the demand for electricity doesn’t follow weather conditions. Strategies for optimizing the use of energy from renewable sources are either to store the power generated on windy and sunny days or to create a flexible demand. Sector coupling does both.

Basically, the more sectors you can power via the grid, the better you can exploit the green electricity generated by wind and sun. Today’s advanced AC drives technology allows for flexible use of green electricity, when it is available, for example in district heating and cooling with thermal storage in hot or cold water tanks for use when green electricity is not available. Likewise, surplus green electricity can be channeled into industrial processes – and into the transport sector which will absorb more of the green power produced and exploit the actual capacity. Battery-driven vessels, ferries, boats, cars and buses can, for a large part, charge up during the night when electricity suppliers usually have a surplus of power, because the consumption is low.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that, as a society, we are capable of taking immediate, radical action to avoid a global disaster. Let this be an inspiration to accelerate sustainable growth and roll out new, climate-friendly technologies for a green restart of society.