Energy Transition

The energy transition moonshot: 4 CEOs explain innovations that will transform our world

Four CEOs at the forefront of the energy transition spoke to the World Economic Forum about the innovative work their companies are doing.

Four CEOs at the forefront of the energy transition spoke to the World Economic Forum about the innovative work their companies are doing.

Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The latest IPCC report says we need a substantial reduction in fossil-fuel use to keep temperature rises below 1.5°C.
  • More than $35 trillion investment in transition technologies is required by 2030 to make this possible.
  • Four CEOs at the forefront of the energy transition spoke to the World Economic Forum about the innovative work their companies are doing.
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To have any chance of keeping below a global average temperature rise of 1.5°C, we need a "substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use, minimal use of unabated fossil fuels and use of carbon capture and storage in the remaining fossil-fuel systems," according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

This will require global investment of more than $5 trillion annually in energy transition technologies – more than quadruple the record $1.3 trillion investment in 2022 – finds the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). By 2030, cumulative investment in transition technologies must represent $35 trillion.

How investment in renewables needs to grow by 2050 for a faster energy transition.
How investment in renewables needs to grow by 2050 for a faster energy transition. Image: IRENA

Companies around the world are pioneering new ways of generating and delivering energy to help meet the Paris Agreement targets.

The World Economic Forum recently held its inaugural meeting of Advanced Energy Solutions – a community that aims to speed up deployment of energy solutions, such as clean fuels, hydrogen and new nuclear.

We spoke to four leaders of companies leading the charge towards a green future.

Charging electric vehicles

Countries across the globe are increasingly introducing targets to phase out the internal combustion engine and bring down greenhouse gas emissions. But is the electric-vehicle charging infrastructure in place to support the transition – and are people switching?

Blink Charging is a leading owner, operator and provider of electric vehicle (EV) charging equipment and networked EV charging services.

Michael Farkas, Founder, Executive Chairman & CEO, says the company is now in its 14th year, but there's a long way to go to fully realize the potential of electric vehicles: "When you look at the scale and numbers of how many charging stations are deployed, how many EVs are on the road, and you look at where we need to be in 2030, 2050 and beyond, we haven't even scratched the surface.

"There are a couple of million viable chargers that have been deployed globally. Some estimates say as many as 450 million chargers need to be deployed between now and 2040."

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Early concerns that "range anxiety" – the fear of an EV running out of power before reaching its destination – would put people off making the switch were largely unfounded, he says.

"It was definitely a major concern in the beginning and it definitely hindered growth. But people are seeing more and more charging stations everywhere. There's a business and hardware now that really allows people to drive across countries. So I think it's less of an impediment than it was before.

"Cars being released now can go over 600 miles on a single charge, that's way more than anyone could handle in a single journey. Now, the question is, do the consumers want those vehicles? Look at the consumer acceptance rate of a technology that's similar to EVs – the last product you have was flat-screen televisions. How many people after they purchased their first flat-screen TV ever went back and bought a tube television?

"Anyone who drives an EV realizes it's much cheaper in terms of per-mile costs in fuel. And EVs need no transmission fluids and no brake fluids to maintain the car. When you look at the cost for fleet operators operating EVs versus internal combustion engine cars, it makes tremendous sense. So you're seeing massive amounts of fleets globally converting to EVs because it's saving them so much in fuel and maintenance."

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Greening aviation

Aviation accounts for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions – the sector is aiming to reach net zero by 2050. So what are the options?

Theye Veen is Co-Founder and Chief Commercial Officer at SkyNRG, a global market leader for sustainable aviation fuel solutions.

"Sustainable aviation fuel is basically a substitute for kerosene, fossil kerosene, but then made from other materials like used cooking oil and other bio waste that you can use for fuels."

Currently, less than 0.1% of all jet fuel used globally is sustainable – and that needs to change, says Veen.

"Sustainable fuels are more expensive than the fossil fuels, so that needs to change as well with policy regulation mandates to make a level playing field.

"Planes that are delivered today will be flying for the next 40 years, so that's an important part of why this industry does not change that fast."

Global carbon dioxide emissions from aviation
Global carbon dioxide emissions from aviation. Image: Our World in Data

What goes into making the fuel?

"There's a wide range of feedstocks that you can use and that depends on technologies. Not all fuels are made in the same sustainable way. The first wave of biofuels uses oils like palm oil or soya oil. Waste oils like used cooking oil are not produced at a large enough scale for the whole aviation industry," Veen explains.

"Other technologies include the Holy Grail of green hydrogen, synthetic fuels (using hydrogen and CO2) that you can create at a large scale. Hydrogen planes are not there yet, that could be another 40 years. We're already seeing electric planes – and in 10 years' time, we'll probably be flying short-range with not too many people. But for the larger scale, long-haul flights for the next 20-30 years, we see sustainable aviation fuel as a drop-in to these fossil fuels with existing infrastructure as the solution.

"More and more corporations are becoming more aware of their carbon footprint. In the last three or four years, we've seen them say: 'We want to have our staff flying on sustainable fuels' - which is amazing because you get another push on the demand side. They're willing to take a risk and to commit for the longer term, which makes a business case more feasible and investments more feasible. And that's helping to accelerate this industry."

Energy transition led by hydrogen fuel cells

Hydrogen could have a key role to play in the green transition. The International Energy (IEA) Estimates hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels could avoid up to 60 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions by mid-century.

Fuel Cell Energy is a global leader in manufacturing stationary fuel cell platforms for decarbonizing power and producing hydrogen through fuel cell technology innovation.

Jason Few, President and CEO, says: "Fuel cells are really all about making electricity using chemistry. They take a feedstock of fuel, whether it be hydrogen or renewable natural gas, as an example, and mix it with air and reform it effectively into hydrogen. Then it uses hydrogen to make power and all that is done without combusting the fuel.

"With traditional power generation, you run into environmental issues just because you combust the fuel, but in the case of fuel cells, it's a chemical reaction. There's no fuel combustion.

"One of the challenges with renewable energy is that it's intermittent, it's not consistent and you don't control the input. Mother Nature decides when we get sunlight or when we get wind. But those are very important technologies for the energy transition.

"What we need to be able to do in the industry is firm up the capacity today – and that's done using natural gas, combustion engines or coal plants. We believe the best way to do that is with hydrogen and to use hydrogen as the energy store as a way to firm up the capacity of wind and solar. You can use excess wind and solar to actually convert that electricity and water into hydrogen, through electrolysis, and store the hydrogen. Then you can reverse that hydrogen and actually produce power."

Hydrogen can also be used in transportation, by creating fuel-cell electric vehicles, and it can help to decarbonize the hard-to-abate industries, like steel, cement and glass manufacturing that require high temperatures.

"It's a very abundant fuel and to achieve decarbonization, hydrogen has to be part of the story. Long-duration energy storage has to be part of the story. And because there are a number of industries that are going to be really hard to eliminate emissions, carbon capture must also be part of the story, in order for us to achieve our climate goals," Few says.

The role of nuclear in energy transition

Nuclear power could have a role to play as a source of low-emissions electricity that is "available on demand to complement the leading role of renewables such as wind and solar in the transition to electricity systems with net zero emissions", according to the IEA.

A group named newcleo is developing a disruptive new approach to extracting energy from nuclei that is safe, clean, renewable and technologically accessible.

Stefano Buono, founder and CEO, says: "We try to understand what scares people and why nuclear was not successful so far – and the reason was essentially the cost and, of course, the fear of accidents and the waste. So we are trying to solve these three problems in our new design.

"We're using the nuclear waste, essentially plutonium and uranium, that has been used by the nuclear industry to actually produce more energy than was initially extracted. Another thing is the cost. Big installations are very costly. Historically, nuclear has become very big to keep the cost down, but actually the opposite happened. So now nuclear is coming back to the idea of making very small and modular machines that can be produced in series," he explains.

"Of course, safety is very important for the nuclear industry. In the next generation of nuclear, you can enhance passive safety, so you can make your reactor switch off in any condition.

"Nuclear technology essentially stopped progressing for 35 years. But there has been a lot of research. So we are using the experience and the research. We are not discovering anything new. You don't need new technology, but we need to put this technology together in a new industrial design."

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