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Tej Gidda

Vice-President and Global Leader - Future Energy at GHD

Panelist on Strategies to Successfully Navigate, Accelerate & Support a Just Energy Transition

Tej Gidda is a Vice-President and Global Leader for Future Energy at GHD. In this capacity, his mission is to create and implement a strategy for decarbonization of the energy sector in the geographies where GHD is active, and to consider new geographies where the firm can bring lasting community benefit.


Tej holds a PhD in environmental engineering and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Waterloo.

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Expert insight: The role of a just transition in decarbonizing energy systems

GHD’s global lead for future energy, Tej Gidda, addresses the challenges of electrification for a socially equitable transition to net zero, ahead of his participation in a panel debate devoted to this topic at EA’s Sustainability Delivery Summit in June.  


The world urgently needs to decarbonize its energy systems to combat climate change, as energy represents the largest component of greenhouse gas emissions. As we explore different solutions to this, electrification has emerged as a necessary approach, albeit not a solution that can work in isolation from other approaches. In this article, we will look at the challenges that come with the electrification of our daily lives and offer practicable options for achieving a just transition – that is the process of shifting to a low-carbon economy in a way that is fair and equitable for all, particularly for those who are most affected by the changes. 


The challenges include:

  • The controversy and difficulty in decarbonizing existing energy systems

  • The need to electrify as much as possible while also finding ways to decarbonize hard-to-electrify sectors

  • The difficulty of electrifying certain industries and the need to find sustainable alternatives to things like natural gas and liquid fuels

  • Range anxiety in electric vehicles (EVs) must be addressed, and ways must be found to decarbonize long-distance trucking and transit.


The topic of decarbonizing our existing energy systems and increasing electrification can be controversial and provocative. GHD identified challenges during its SHOCKED campaign, including moving capital, developing new engineered solutions, overcoming supply chain challenges with material and talent, effectively and respectfully dealing with communities and stakeholders that will house new infrastructure, and ensuring a just transition. Each of these requires diligent answers.


The electrification mandate is important and must proceed. This is clear. Only about 20% of our existing energy use comes from electricity; however, the term electrification does not necessarily mean decarbonized energy. In many countries, coal is still a significant component of the electricity grid; while systems may be electrified, the source of the electricity is still carbon-intensive. The real goal here is to supply more energy in the form of electricity but to simultaneously decarbonize that electricity so it is low-carbon.


As noted, with 20% of our energy in the form of electricity globally, how do we decarbonize the other 80%? A particularly dogmatic view is emerging that we can quickly and affordably electrify this 80%, including EVs replacing gasoline/diesel and electrified heating, removing the need for natural gas. Yet we must acknowledge the sectors that will be difficult to abate, such as steel and cement, components of agriculture, aviation, shipping and others. Is it truly realistic to electrify these sectors responsibly? And even if it were, could we generate the electricity needed to supply these sectors in addition to the constantly increasing demand for electricity?


There are other limitations we must tackle. Should we electrify all transportation, will we be able to supply enough lithium for the batteries required? Should we wish to supply all residences in colder climates with heat pumps to displace natural gas furnaces, what is the cost to the consumers of this change, and how do disadvantaged communities, in particular, pay for this? This, and many other questions, need to be asked before moving in a dogmatic direction.


Explore the gray areas


A better viewpoint is to electrify all that can be electrified as soon as possible while using decarbonized fuels for the hard-to-abate sectors where the transition to electrification will take much longer. Blue hydrogen and renewable natural gas are examples of decarbonized fuels that can supply the harder-to-abate sectors that are difficult to electrify. At the same time, low-carbon hydrogen and biogenic carbon dioxide from renewable natural gas can be building blocks for things like sustainable aviation fuel, low-carbon ammonia, and fuels like methane that can prolong the use of existing natural gas infrastructure.


I believe we need to electrify everything we can electrify, but all the elements we can't electrify very easily, find a way to decarbonize that is pragmatic and affordable while maintaining energy security. This parallel shift is necessary to ensure we can decarbonize our energy systems while also maintaining a just transition for all. I believe we need to stop thinking in black-and-white terms and start exploring the shades of grey where electrification and decarbonization occur on parallel paths rather than concentrating on one or the other.


If we look at long haul freight, and more specifically tractor-trailers, as an example of the challenges of electrification; current battery technology is heavy, so imagine how heavy it will have to be to haul a tractor-trailer across the country? We would be dedicating hauling capacity to the battery when we need it to move goods. We need a different fuel. This is where a hydrogen solution may fit the bill, operating through a fuel cell. A compressed hydrogen tank would reduce the weight requirement and provide a greater range for vehicles that need extended range outputs.


Towards deep decarbonization


Electrify while decarbonizing liquid and gaseous fuels. We need to hit our net zero 2050 goals, and waiting for perfect solutions will not help us. The existing paradigms sound like this: ‘We should electrify everything immediately and get off natural gas,’ while the opposite contention is that ‘natural gas is the solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.’ Both extremes are impractical and incorrect. Electrification of everything is not possible in the short term, or if we want a just transition, not to mention that we do not know where this additional electrical generation would come from. At the same time, while natural gas is a critical transition fuel, it is still a fossil fuel and not the long-term solution either.


We would argue that the next level of decarbonization, and deep decarbonization at that, relies on less dogmatic approaches to reducing emissions and more practical ones that acknowledge one approach alone will not help us achieve net zero ambitions. Never has it been more apparent that multiple solutions are required in parallel: this is both a human and a technical challenge that we must rise to.

Hear more from Tej at the Summit

Meet Tej and learn more about the role of a just transition in decarbonizing energy systems at the Summit (24-26 June 2024, Boston).

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