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Are we close to a green energy tipping point?

Renewable energy production will soon overtake coal.

Renewable energy production will soon overtake coal.

Tarek Sultan
Vice-Chairman of the Board, Agility
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

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  • Climate change is accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy.
  • Innovative technologies are being harnessed to help reduce or eliminate emissions.
  • Across shipping, aviation, mobility, agriculture, manufacturing and construction, change is happening.

More than 20 years ago, author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a best-seller called The Tipping Point. He was fascinated by “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” when trends in business, marketing and human behaviour catch fire and begin to spread furiously.

We’re clearly at, or nearing, tipping point moments in the transition to clean energy. The signs are everywhere.

In the boardroom

Climate-related activity by companies and investors has shifted from risk mitigation to opportunity capture. “We are at an energy inflection point,” according to Boston Consulting Group.

McKinsey says the momentum behind projects designed to limit or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) “may create the largest reallocation of capital in history.” Indeed, companies and financial institutions responsible for more than $130 trillion are committed to the fight and determined to bring down emissions.

Have you read?

On the seas

Shipbuilders’ order books show where the maritime shipping industry is heading. Maersk, HMM, Danaos, COSCO, CMA CGM and other carriers are placing orders for dual-fuelled vessels that can run on liquid or gas fuels and will be powered by methanol. Conventional methanol is made from fossil sources – natural gas, coal, oil – but ocean carriers are betting on e-methanol, which is made with renewables: biogas, biomass, waste, sludge, and recycled carbon dioxide.

That’s important because ocean shipping generates about 3% of GHG gases. The industry has been slow to clean up its act, despite 2020 International Maritime Organization rules that limit vessels’ sulphur oxide emissions.

Cargo carriers initially responded to the IMO 2020 requirements with short-term fixes. They mothballed some older, dirtier ships and equipped others with emissions-eating scrubbers. Newer ships were fuelled with – or retrofitted to run on – cleaner-burning LNG.

Ikea, Unilever, Amazon and Inditex are among the companies that have committed to 100% zero-carbon fuel shipping by 2040. Already, customers of freight forwarder DB Schenker can select a biofuels option, agreeing to pay a surcharge to make sure their cargo moves on vessels powered by sustainable fuels.

Meanwhile, port operators and politicians are exploring creation of green, digital shipping “corridors.” One corridor would link Singapore with US West Coast ports. Ports at both ends would add storage and infrastructure for low- and zero-carbon fuels along with digital systems and tools to serve ships running on cleaner fuels.

To date, clean hydrogen lacks viability as a widely used marine fuel. That is expected to change in the next few years, but the Port of Rotterdam has decided not to wait: it is making huge investments to transform itself into an international hub for production, storage and transport of hydrogen.

There’s also hope for older ships that run on fossil fuels. Several carriers are experimenting with carbon-capture systems that can be installed on existing ships. The systems collect carbon in liquefied form, allowing it to later be offloaded and repurposed to make dry ice and other products.

There is no consensus about the dominant ocean fuel or fuels after 2030. Green ammonia, biodiesel, fuel oil, blue ammonia, LNG, e-methanol, biomethanol, biomethane, and e-methane were among the sources cited by respondents in a recent industry survey. However, there is a clear desire by operators to have the capability to power vessels with fuel “families” – multiple types of oils or gases, for example – that can be used interchangeably.

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In the air

As Menzies Aviation CEO, Philipp Joenig points out, the aviation industry’s path to sustainability is cloudier. In the short run, the industry is looking to lower emissions by increasing efficiency through aircraft design tweaks and improvements in ground operations, air-traffic management, and route planning.

To scale for sustainable fuels and full decarbonization, the industry is ultimately likely to need look at redesign of airframes and the introduction of new storage technology.

Researchers are looking at an array of potential aviation fuel sources, including algae, hydrogen, biowaste and synthetic fuels made with so-called Power-to-Liquid (PtL technology). Meanwhile, United Airlines has launched a fund to invest in sustainable fuels and is asking the flying public to help make sustainable aviation fuel a reality. United wants passengers to consider contributing to the fund – from $1 to $7 – whenever they book a flight.

On the road

Electric vehicle (EV) adoption continued to grow in 2022 (80% in China year-over-year; 40% in the US). The pace of future growth is likely to be dependent on the availability of incentives such as government subsidies and tax breaks, on the one hand, and the expansion of EV infrastructure such as battery cell production and charging networks, on the other hand.

In trucking, battery-powered EVs are already on the road for drayage, last-mile, and short-haul routes. Range limitations have been the obstacle in long-haul trucking, but some in the industry expect EV freight haulers to be on the road covering the same distances as diesel trucks by 2027.

Enthusiasm for mobility and power generation that rely on lithium-ion batteries has been tempered by worry about the supply of lithium ore and the social and environmental effects of lithium mining. That explains the exuberance at recent international auto shows where carmakers have unveiled EVs using sodium-ion batteries, a cheaper source of potential electrification using a more abundant raw material.

On the farm

Ultra-efficient energy use, water conservation and emissions reduction have turned tiny Holland into the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products (by value) after the US. The Netherlands, worried a generation ago that it couldn’t feed itself, is feeding Europe today. It is a pioneer in vertical farming, seed technology, robotics for harvesting and milking, lab-grown meat, and conventional livestock production.

Revolution upon revolution

The energy transformation is also a materials and construction revolution. Buildings consume roughly 40% of the energy we generate. Transparent aerogels made from abundant cellulose biopolymers are going into windows and skylights that can now outperform other thermal barriers when it comes to reducing heat and cooling loss. Non-transparent versions provide powerful insulation for pipes and building facades.

Micropyramid technology, which involves precise stacks of small lenses, is enhancing solar panels, increasing the amount of light they can capture each day and boosting capture on dreary days.

Developers building in some cities face mandates to reduce emissions. Some are doing so by creating buildings that are airtight envelopes with triple-pane glass, 4-inch wall insulation, and advanced ventilation systems. They say they can do more if they can obtain affordable steel made at foundries powered by green hydrogen and cement that is used to store captured carbon. In one experiment, carbon emissions from two large gas boilers in a Manhattan apartment tower are captured, liquefied and trucked to a concrete plan to be mixed with cement and sealed in blocks.

More plastics are coming from sustainable sources such as sugarcane, while Zara, H&M, Gucci and others are scaling the use of recycled fibres in apparel. SkyNano is using carbon emissions as a feedstock for low-cost, sustainable manufacturing of advanced carbon materials for batteries, tyres, and plastics.

Technology is helping us make huge improvements in stubborn areas that generate lots of waste. One example is in made-to-fit packaging, where e-commerce giants such as Walmart and Amazon are on the threshold of a major breakthrough thanks to new technology that allows them to essentially customise the size of parcels to slash packaging waste and shipping costs. Elsewhere, AI-powered robots are being deployed to address the biggest hurdle to recycling: trash sorting.

Signs of progress in transition to green energy

In less than two years, renewables will overtake coal as the world’s number one source of power, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). And over the next five years, the world will add more renewable energy than it has in the past two decades, equal to the entire power capacity of China. Renewables have already surpassed coal in the US.

More than 90% of the new electricity capacity added between now and 2027 will be from renewable sources. Growth in renewables is accelerating at rates that outstrip even recent forecasts by the IEA and others.

It feels like a tipping point.

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