The ‘sliding doors’ of the energy future

Last edited: 14 May 2018

Two pathways, two alternative outcomes: asking 'what if' is a familiar plot device in fiction, but in the real world it can be an equally powerful tool when modelling the future. BP's latest Technology Outlook relates a story of alternatives, with researchers posing 'what if' questions about the future energy mix and the path of greenhouse gas emissions...

What does BP’s Technology Outlook have in common with the rom-com movie Sliding Doors? Not a lot, one might think – but there is a connection. They both ask, ‘what if?’

The ‘what if’ in the 1990s film hinges on the heroine, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, catching a train as the doors are closing. In one storyline, she slips through the narrowing gap and goes on to become a successful business-woman. In the other, the doors close, the train pulls away without her, and life unfolds in a very different way.

The BP Technology Outlook 2018 is strictly non-fiction – but it also relates a story of alternatives. Using a computer model called TIAM World, BP’s technology team ask ‘what if’ questions about the future energy mix and the path of greenhouse gas emissions.

What questions?

Two questions in particular provide valuable insights for advancing a lower carbon future:

  • What if changes to 2050 depended only on advances in technology?
  • What if carbon emissions were reduced by 75% by 2050?

The first future – ‘unconstrained’

In the first 'future', Europe sees great strides in renewable energy by 2050 and wind, hydroelectricity and solar become the main sources of power. In North America, gas provides most electricity. However, in China coal power stations remain cheaper and more prevalent.

On the roads, hybrids that combine electric motors with conventional internal combustion engines become the most common type of car worldwide.

And in the heating sector, gas is used everywhere, in furnaces that warm air in North America and in boilers that warm water in China and in Europe – where it also fuels district heating systems.

And what is the bottom line for the environment?  This mix of energy, determined by technology advances alone slows the pace at which carbon emissions are rising. But it still results in a 15% rise in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 – very different to the fall of 75% from 2015 levels estimated by the International Energy Agency as necessary to limit the global temperature rise to two degrees or less above pre-industrial levels.

An 'unconstrained' world

In the United States, gas-fired power is the main source of fuel used to generate electricity.

The second future – ‘a two-degree world’

A 'two-degree' world

In Europe, renewables provide almost all the power in the second 'future' modelled by the Technology Outlook.

The second 'future' modelled by the Outlook asks the computer to show the most economical way of providing energy in 2050 with carbon dioxide emissions cut by 75% compared to 2015 levels.

In this pathway, coal virtually disappears from the fuel mix. Nuclear plants become the largest source of electricity in China, followed by wind and solar.  In Europe, renewables provide almost all the power, while in North America they compete with gas power stations fitted with carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) – a technology that doesn’t show up at all in the first future.

And there’s something completely different in all three of those regions: power stations using biomass with carbon capture use and storage – or BECCS. These facilities burn biomass, such as crops or waste, to generate electricity - and capture the carbon dioxide emitted. As the crops have absorbed carbon when growing, the process actually has negative greenhouse gas emissions.

In transport, electric vehicles rule the roads in North America and Europe – and are also plentiful in China, although still outnumbered there by hybrids.

In heating and cooling, gas remains widespread while electric heat pumps that suck heat from the air – like a fridge, but in reverse – become common, particularly in Europe.

Which future?

The modelling isn’t intended to be an accurate forecast of the future – more an indication of what needs to change to deliver a low-carbon future. And clear messages emerge:

  • More incentives are needed if technology is to advance faster and contribute more towards delivery of a two-degree future, or lower. While consumer demand could, in theory, accelerate progress, the more likely route is through policies such as carbon pricing.
  • Power is the cheapest and simplest sector to decarbonize. That’s why it becomes carbon-negative, using BECCS. The next most economical sector for emissions reduction is transport then heating - which is the most expensive and accounts for the largest share of the remaining emissions in a two-degree world. 
  • Support is needed to make CCUS economically viable.  Driving down the costs of CCUS to make it competitive with other forms of energy technology is important if a lower-carbon future is to be achieved - and this ambition is unlikely to be achieved by expected advances in technology, unless it is assisted.
  • Natural gas is an important part of any scenario. The cleaner burning properties of gas compared to coal mean it can be used widely for heat as well as in power with CCUS in a two-degree world.

Asking ‘what if’ in fiction may make for a highly entertaining movie. In real life, it can be even more powerful as a tool for identifying the choices that need to be made by policy-makers, businesses and consumers. The BP Technology Outlook helps to shed new light on what those choices may be.

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