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GF blog article about the role of geography in the energy mix

The Geographic Constraints on Energy

By Christofer Mowry, Chief Executive Officer at General Fusion

The 21st century’s most famous energy graphic, the one which undeniably charts the continued upward trend of global carbon emissions, is the source of much passionate discourse. Why has there been no discernable “bend in the curve”, after almost two decades of concerted effort? The trajectory of our carbon emissions has changed about as much as the global energy mix, which is to say, not much. The root of this issue must thereforebe related to energy technology options and how they contribute to actual energy production. It occurs to me that geography is at least partly responsible for this stasis in energy mix and carbon emissions.

Source: World Bank data

Germany, as an “early mover” in the effort to reduce carbon emissions from energy production, offers hard-learned lessons for the rest of the world. Its notorious “Energiewende” (literally “turning of energy”) will cost Germany a projected 500 billion dollars through 2025. Yet, this massive investment in wind and solar energy technology has had very little impact on the country’s overall carbon emissions. Unintended consequences of the German government’s Energiewende policy are manifold, but geography clearly plays an important role.

A quick glance at Germany’s electricity production demonstrates the constraint which geography imposes on the selection of effective energy technologies. Most wind power is produced in the north, near the Baltic and North Seas, while its consumers reside in central and southern Germany. This presents two limitations. First, the wind does not blow particularly strongly across these waters when high-pressure systems bring hot summer weather to the region. Second, limitations in the transmission system also restrict the movement of electricity produced by these technologies from where it is produced to where it is used. As a result, many parts of Germany cannot access wind power when they need it the most, causing them to rely on electricity generated by coal plants. Add in the fact that Germany’s weather is not particularly solar power friendly, and the result is a serious mismatch between energy technology and geography.

The mobile app, Electricity Map, helps consumers understand the real-time carbon intensity and underlying energy technology mix of many countries around the world. A quick glance on the app this past summer revealed that Germany’s carbon intensity was approaching 500 grams of CO2/kWh. At the time, the grid benefitted from less than 10,000 MW of the more than 100,000 MW of wind and solar power installed since the turn of the century. So, the country was consuming electricity produced primarily by coal-fired power plants, one on the most carbon intensive energy technologies currently deployed anywhere in the world. It was also an incredibly hot and windless late summer afternoon, just the kind of day climate change will bring in abundance during the coming years.

This tool can help to provide a more global perspective on the geography of energy as well. Norway, which has almost no carbon emissions, happens to be blessed with abundant precipitation and a mountain range that spans the length of the country. The combination of these conditions makes practical an electricity grid powered almost entirely by hydropower. Norway’s carbon emissions are, not surprisingly, one of the lowest in the world. Electricity Map indicates Norway’s carbon intensity remains between 35-40 grams of CO2/kWh all year, less than 10% of that from Germany on that prototypically hot 21st century summer day.

On the other end of the geographical spectrum lies Malaysia. A rapidly developing country, Malaysia sits exactly astride the equator. Seemingly paradoxically, this equatorial location means that energy technologies like wind and solar have limited value. There are no steady trade winds blowing across Malaysia and few clear days with no rain showers. And, Malaysia’s relatively flat topography renders the option of hydropower also inadequate. These very real geographical constraints on energy technology options must be considered as Malaysia makes the massive national infrastructure investments necessary to transition away from coal and reduce the country’s relatively high carbon intensity, which Electricity Map indicates also approaches 500 grams of CO2/kWh on many days.

Industry stakeholders, including financial investors, electric utilities, government officials, and consumers, are embracing the reality that currently available carbon-free energy technologies have geographically dependent fuel supply chains. The portfolio of hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear power all have their own geographic dependency on fuel source – a dependency on rainy mountains or trade winds or sunny weather or uranium mines. Because these fuel sources are not ubiquitous, the efficacy of their associated energy technologies is not globally uniform. In retrospect, this should not be a surprise: we know the world needs new energy options because we are not achieving our decarbonization goals. Fusion solves the geography challenge by effectively decoupling energy generation from locational constraints on fuel source. Fusion is uniquely “manufactured energy”, with one liter of fusion fuel – derived from water – enough to power 10,000 homes for a year. And this amount of water exists anywhere that people permanently live or work. It is requisite to civilization in all places and at all times.

This special value proposition – the manufacturability of fusion – is propelling private ventures around the world to commercialize a new, geographically unconstrained energy option and finally “bend the curve” of global carbon emissions. Not coincidentally, Malaysia is one of General Fusion’s most significant investors.

This article first appeared in the December 2018 edition of General Fusion’s quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here to receive the next edition.