The world is facing a looming deadline. The planet is getting warmer and carbon emissions are contributing to that rise. Globally, we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 50% before 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050 if we hope to prevent climate change from becoming a climate crisis. Power generation is one of the most significant contributors to climate change. Plants that burn fossil fuels generate nearly 40% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Making the switch to carbon-free energy could help make it easier to reach the eventual goal of net-zero emissions. With so much global energy generation depending on fossil fuels, how close are we to cracking the code for carbon-free energy?
What Is Carbon-Free Energy?
What makes electricity carbon-free? Carbon-free energy is any electricity produced by a resource that generates no carbon emissions. The world requires it to obtain its sustainability goals.
It does not mean carbon-free electricity is free from environmental concern. Infrastructure is necessary to operate it, and these efforts require resources and potential habitat degradation. However, this cannot stop advancement. Instead, it will inspire innovation to make 100% eco-friendly carbon-free energy sources.
Power generation options like nuclear, wind, solar and hydroelectric power don’t produce any carbon emissions while generating electricity.
Unpacking Nuclear Power
Nuclear power has its downsides, from the strict safety requirements to the challenge of disposing of spent nuclear fuel rods. While it might be carbon-free, many argue that nuclear power has no place in a carbon-free or green energy future.
Others argue it is the ideal intermediary as renewable energy adoption advances.
Other forms of power generation, such as cold fusion, could also potentially fill that niche. It generates reactions at room temperature instead of commonly associated hot fusion that happens within a star. Cold fusion uses lithium as its primary fuel source, generating electricity by fusing atoms rather than splitting them apart.
The method creates more electricity than nuclear fission without any harmful fallout. It answers the waste concern with nuclear power. It also doesn’t emit any carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, the technology exists to set up widespread fusion power generation.
Opting for Net-Zero Rather Than Elimination
Eliminating carbon emissions from every industry might seem like the best option to the outside observer. The fact is that this sort of widespread elimination is impossible — and wouldn’t have the impact that most people expect. The damage that carbon dioxide emissions do is cumulative. Even if the human race collectively stops generating carbon emissions tomorrow, climate change will still happen.
There is a significant delay in the global air-temperature increase. Scientists hypothesize that if we stopped producing CO2 today, it would take decades for the climate to stabilize. In the meantime, temperatures will continue to climb. Severe weather will get more frequent and more dangerous. Modern climate scientists are already planning for a world 4 degrees Celsius warmer than today. The changes we’ve seen just over the last decade occurred after a 1-degree Celsius increase.
Democratic Calls to Action
President Biden and his Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act isn’t the first attempt to legislate clean energy and carbon reductions. Former President Barack Obama released a Clean Power Plan in 2015. Among other things, this plan called for reducing power-related carbon emissions by 32% with a 2030 deadline.
This might seem like a noble goal, but the plan didn’t provide any framework for achieving this goal. The behavior is trend across the world. For example, the EU has been questioned for its zero-emissions Jet Zero framework in which the language was vague at best and plan mostly non-existent.
Other members of the Democratic party, such as Bernie Sanders, who was also hoping to secure a presidential nomination in 2020, have suggested that the US should work toward getting all its power from renewable resources by 2030. As of 2022, only 34.6% of the country’s power generation came from renewable sources. There is also a growing amount of support for the Green New Deal, which would help to reduce the country’s overall carbon emissions.
Increasing the Percentage of Green Energy
After taking office in 2021, President Biden announced that the United States would be participating in the Paris Climate Agreement. The agreement aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world. The Department of Energy has established a handful of goals to hopefully help the country accomplish that task by the 2030 deadline. These goals include deploying a massive 30-gigawatt wind farm and reducing the cost of solar by 60%, both by 2030.
In addition to generating enough clean and carbon-neutral energy to power 10 million homes, the new wind farm will create tens of thousands of jobs and prevent the power industry from generating more than 78 million metric tons of carbon emissions. Decreasing the cost of efficient solar will also help create jobs over the next decade. It may also build a foundation that could make switching to 100% green energy by 2035.
Eliminating Power Sector Carbon Emissions
Green energy might sound like the perfect solution to get us away from a dependence on fossil fuels. It is a better option than burning fossil fuels, but solar panels aren’t inherently carbon-free. The solar industry generates CO2 during manufacturing due to the high temperatures necessary to manipulate silicon.
The panels themselves, once installed, emit around 50g of CO2 annually. This is infinitely less than coal or fossil fuel-powered electricity, but it will still take around three years for the panel to pay off its carbon debt and become carbon-neutral.
This shouldn’t discourage anyone interested in investing in solar for their home or business. It is still infinitely better for the planet than burning fossil fuels, but it’s not carbon-free. Instead, what this might do is buy us some time to explore more truly carbon-free power options.
Big Companies Following Suit
Digital might seem clean, but big data is one of the dirtiest industries in the world. Data centres worldwide consume roughly 3% of the planet’s power supply. The more power these centres demand, the more fossil fuels are fed into the furnace to keep the lights on and servers spinning. Google, one of the biggest data companies globally, has been working to make their entire operation carbon-free. You read that right — they’re going one step beyond carbon-neutral and working toward an entirely carbon-free operation.
Innovations in solid-state cooling, microgrid attachments and upgrading legacy equipment has the potential to decarbonize and reduce energy consumption before hooking it up to renewable energy generation. Eventually, they could become distributed energy sources, serving as battery backups for communities.
In 2007, Google took steps to become carbon-neutral. In 2017, they matched all of their energy consumption with renewable energy. The ultimate goal is for their entire service to operate on carbon-free energy by 2030.
This Isn’t an Individual Issue
There is a lot of information out there claiming that the secret to preventing a climate crisis and saving the world is driving an electric car and getting rid of all your single-use plastics. While individual choices can have a lasting impact if enough people decide to make them, it’s not the straw that you drink your Starbucks iced coffee with that’s going to break the camel’s metaphorical back, especially since Starbucks ditched plastic straws in 2020.
Corporate social responsibility is far greater than individual responsibility — a pressure put on consumers by companies to displace environmental blame.
The most significant impact will come from industry-wide changes. Industries and corporations need to make critical changes so the effects have the opportunity to trickle down. While doing so, industries must avoid greenwashing and becoming sustainable purely for profit. Their intentions must match an authentic dedication to the planet that consumers want them to have.
How Close Are We to Carbon-Free Energy?
At the end of the day, how close are we to carbon-free energy? Achieving this goal is more complex than it sounds. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind aren’t necessarily carbon-free. Instead, they can be carbon neutral. Pairing carbon-neutral power sources with carbon offset programs that can help remove CO2 from the atmosphere is the closest we can get to carbon-free power. At least, for the time being.
Cold fusion is likely the next step in creating carbon-free power, but it isn’t ready for widespread deployment. We’ve just started creating fusion reactions that produce more energy than they consume. Fusion technology may help us create a genuinely carbon-free future. The first large-scale fusion test reactor is scheduled to come online in 2025 and may paint a clearer picture of the kind of carbon-free future we can look forward to.