The first day of the Astana International Forum has come to an end. The conference, taking place in the Kazakh capital on 8-9 June, brings together the international community to address current global challenges, like climate, food scarcity and energy security.
1. Decarbonising energy
One of the panels on Thursday addressed the challenges of the green transition of the energy sector, at the same time putting forward a few solutions and noting on some conditions that have to be met for the industry to reach net zero by 2050.
In the energy industry, similarly to any other sector, people are reluctant to change. They have been doing their business the same way for years and change is expensive. “Any green transition is expensive because you are used to doing things a certain way and it’s working. But this is not a matter of cost anymore, it’s a matter of our lives. We need renewable energy if we want to make it to the next century”, stressed Mahmoud Galal, BioEnergy CEO.
Renewables are the generally accepted solution to decarbonising energy and while they are certainly the way into the future, two age old problems remain their biggest challenges: storage and grid flexibility. “Some of our electrical grids have not been updated in 100 years”, said Ariel Cohen, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. They were not built to adapt to the intermittency of supply that comes with switching to renewable energy sources, so for a green transition we need “much smarter grids”.
2. The nuclear dilemma
Meanwhile, nuclear energy is more often than not the elephant nobody likes to talk about when it comes to decarbonising the energy industry. Without doubt there have been several catastrophic accidents in the world and the question of nuclear waste has long posed environmental concerns. On the other hand, “no one talks about waste from coal or the dangers and deaths associated to working in coal mines”, pointed out Joshua Lincoln, Senior Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
While carbon capture and carbon storage technologies along with renewables are a solution, they are yet not affordable enough nor scalable enough. Nuclear energy can complement these to ensure the energy industry reaches net zero by 2050. Even the European Commission, that has been cautious around the subject has finally admitted that nuclear does not pose any threats to human health nor the environment, noted Tim Yeo, Chairman of the New Nuclear Watch Institute.
I am not a big fan of nuclear. Being French, that’s not a surprise. But I will say that without nuclear we will not reach net zero in time.Jean Sentenac, CEO Axens Group
“The economics of nuclear require as much long-term stability and interdependency as possible. Cooperation in launching an international nuclear project can be a win-win and Kazakhstan has an opportunity to lead the green energy transition in Central Asia. This could create new jobs for its citizens, a cleaner environment, a growing economy, but, in particular, if it tries to structure a long-term deal based on international cooperation, it might set an example which the rest of the world could follow”, said Yeo.
Moreover, with new small, modular nuclear reactors being developed, the risks are reduced even more. The waste produced by current reactors is already a fraction of the plants that were first built decades ago and the new generation small reactors produce even less. They will also have a significantly lower cost than existing reactors.
Concluding the panel on the subject of energy security, Lincoln reminded of the International Energy Agency’s concept that the growth of net zero energy sources has to be extremely well synchronized with the off ramping of fossil fuels. This coordination, or rather lack of, was felt across Germany last year when the country decided to decommission 6 nuclear reactors at the same time as Russia was cutting gas to Europe off. “This is the perfect example of an ill though energy policy”, Cohen highlighted.
“This coordination needs to be the definition of energy security. In fact, one needs to be slightly ahead of the other”, Lincoln said, explaining that before old power plants are decommissioned, new ones need to already be fully functional to take over production.