By Seb Henbest
But let’s say all road vehicles and buildings were to go electric. To keep emissions in line with the 2 degrees Celsius warming limit prescribed by the Paris climate agreement, the power sector would have to deploy around 26,000 terawatt hours of wind and solar generation by 2050, which would cover a land area the size of Turkey. The land-use impacts in this scenario differ by country: It would take less than 1% of land in the U.S., China, and India, but as much as 7.4% in Germany. While the latter is a big number, it’s still much smaller than woodland, which accounts for 30.6% of Germany’s total land area, and agriculture, which covers 51.7%.
Let’s go even further and assume that the entire economy gets to net-zero emissions, including hard-to-abate sectors such as steel-making and aviation. That will likely require hydrogen. Today, most hydrogen is manufactured from natural gas using a carbon-intensive process, but it’s also possible to make so-called “green hydrogen” by breaking water apart in an electrolyzer powered by renewable energy.
A special report published by BNEF in March concluded that if green hydrogen were to supply 24% of all energy used in 2050, we’d need 6 terawatts of wind and 6.3 terawatts of solar dedicated to hydrogen production. That would roughly double the amount of installed renewable capacity.
Whether a green hydrogen economy emerges is still far from certain. But the growth of renewables at the expense of large-scale coal, gas, and nuclear means power plants will become much more visible and commonplace. Small-scale solar will come to dominate rooflines in all but the most northern and southern latitudes. Conversations around the dinner table will drift into personal energy tech, from wall-mounted battery units to the latest e-bike or electric vehicle. And whether we take a train or the highway, we’ll pass hundreds of wind turbines and ground-mounted panels.
In this net-zero emissions world, all four-years-olds will have to do is look around them to see where the electricity comes from. Let’s hope they’ll still think it’s a little bit magic.