“The 21st century is increasingly shaping up to be the age of electricity.” These are the words of one of the most authoritative individuals in the energy field, Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency.
While coal came to symbolise industry in the 19th century with petrol doing likewise in the 20th century, the 21st opened with a great new hope for sustainability: electricity, it seems, can make our planet a better place to live while still fostering economic development. This is in part because we will be using an increasingly clean and more efficient kind of electricity. That is the scenario outlined in the “Electrify 2030” report drawn up by The European House – Ambrosetti in collaboration with Enel X and the Enel Foundation as scientific partners.
The report analyses the electricity scenarios of the near-future and the impact of electricity not just on the energy system but also on society and economy in Europe in general and Italy in particular.
Electricity is the energy of the future
The results of the study reveal a clear positive trend for electricity: between 1990 and 2016, in fact, total electricity consumption as part of total final energy consumption in Europe grew from 17% to 22%. The Italian figures were similar (17% to 21%). A further increase is predicted in the near future: the European percentage will, depending on the scenario mooted, be between 25% and 31%, with Italy’s ranging from 24% to 30%.
Environmentally speaking, the greatest benefit of increased electrification is undoubtedly the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions: thanks to the rapid spread of clean energy sources, most European nations now emit less than 600 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every GWh of electricity generated (this is the threshold beneath which electricity generation is deemed environmentally sustainable): 62 tonnes in France, 229 in Italy, 304 in Spain, 388 in the United Kingdom and 425 in Germany.
“Given increasingly cleaner generation, the gradual penetration of the electric carrier will allow us to not only decarbonise those sectors of the economy that have historically been the highest polluter, but also best utilise the resources at our disposal”
Francesco Starace, CEO and General Manager Enel
Aside from greenhouse gases, which do impact on the world’s climate, using electricity generated from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels also reduces atmospheric pollution at a local level, particularly in urban areas, thereby improving the quality of life and, more significantly still, the health of the population.
From an energy system perspective, electricity also encourages resilience, i.e. the ability to adapt to unforeseen and traumatic events (such as an oil crisis, for instance). This is particularly relevant for nations, such as those in Europe, that are highly dependent on imports in the energy sector. Resilience thus also means greater energy security.
Lastly, electricity grids are perfect for digitalisation, which not only makes them more efficient with less waste, but also allows integrated consumption management with the possibility of balancing the energy system in real time.
Areas for electrification
The report highlights certain sectors that are particularly promising from an energy efficiency perspective. In transport, for instance, electric motors are 40% more efficient than traditional internal combustion engines. This means they are the best sustainable mobility option. In Europe, the electric car market is growing at a rate of 68.7% annually, while the e-bike market is burgeoning even faster (+233% between 2011 and 2017), and many cities are introducing electric buses.
In Italy, where our Group has its general headquarters, transport electrification currently stands at around 2%, but by 2030, it is estimated that figure will have risen to somewhere between 5% and 8%. E-mobility, in fact, is taking off and by 2030, there will be electric vehicles of all kinds on Italy’s streets and roads: between 2 and 9 million cars (depending on the scenarios), while two-wheeled vehicles will be in the range of 240,000 to 1.6 million with between 3,307 and 10,188 buses.
In terms of the heating and air-conditioning sector, electrically-powered heat pumps guarantee a 50% improvement in efficiency compared to conventional units such as condensing boilers. Also in the residential field, advanced methods, such as Energy Management Systems, guarantee efficiency gains in the region of 16% for buildings and 14%-17% for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.
“The expanding role of electricity with an ever-increasing share of wind and solar creates major creates major opportunities – for example, the electrification of personal vehicles and building heating which today are dominated by oil and gas respectively ”
Fatih Birol, Executive Director IEA
Efficiency can also be significantly boosted by the use of innovative technologies: by 73% in electronics, thanks to devices that use SiC (silicon carbide) and gallium nitride (GaN) semiconductors, 12% in storage systems with lithium ion batteries, and up to 80-85% in lighting with LED lights.
Innovation and economic growth
One of the aspects the Ambrosetti report focuses on most is economics, paying particular attention to Italy: electrification is a constant driver of innovation and thus high-tech industrial development, which in turn has a powerful impact on employment.
Already, electrification technologies involve around 17,000 businesses in the manufacturing sector alone in Italy – that’s over 320,000 employees and total revenues in the region of €80 billion.
The largest sector is transport: given the many different areas directly and indirectly involved, the number of Italian businesses that could be potentially affected by e-mobility is around 160,000, with over 820,000 employees and revenues of over €420 billion.
The figures regarding heat pumps, LED lights, storage systems and electric transmissions are also impressive: overall, the four technologies could generate total revenues of between €135 and €326.5 billion by 2030.
Integrated strategical action on several different levels is required to make the most of the potential of electrification and reap all its many benefits. With the Enel Foundation providing scientific support, the scenarios generated and results obtained by the analyses carried out have led to the formulation of recommendations and, in particular, the pinpointing of priority areas of intervention for Italy.
If e-mobility is to become widespread, we need first and foremost to create a strategic vision at a national and local level, and also to boost the installation process for charging points by eliminating all regulatory and legal hindrances. To optimise energy efficiency we must provide continuity of incentivisation and also promote awareness of the benefits of energy efficiency.
To relaunch research, we need national programmes to foster frontier electric technologies and, in order to optimise industrial applications, collaboration between research institutes and businesses will also have to be strengthened. A technology transfer laboratory should be set up that would focus on electrification technologies. However, the role of the Distribution System Manager is pivotal to all these factors as it can support the technological development and investment necessary to consistently drive the integration of renewables, the creation of an extensive network of charging points for e-vehicles and a larger percentage of electricity in final energy consumption.
Last but not least, it is vital to work to raise public awareness and that of political decision-makers of the benefits of electrification: the electric century needs everyone to do their bit.