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Opinion

How will utilities meet surging power demand?

AI isn’t just threatening to take our jobs, it’s also draining our electricity.

Ed Crooks

Vice-Chair, Americas

Ed examines the forces shaping the energy industry globally

View Ed Crooks's full profile

Data centres used to have power demand measured in the tens of megawatts. Now they are in the hundreds of megawatts, and the new ones that are being proposed have demand in the thousands of megawatts: gigawatts. At the Distributech conference in Feburary, Harry Sideris of Duke Energy said it used to be a big deal when they had a customer wanting to add 10MW or 20MW of load. Now they have several planned data centers for AI needing 1000MW each. How is this additional demand being met?

The good news, from a climate point of view, is that part of the answer is going to be a lot more solar and wind power, and energy storage. The bad news is that, according to the plans that US utilities are setting out, there are going to be more gas-fired power plants, too. US gas-fired generation capacity is on course to rise by 25% over the next 15 years, and although those plants will increasingly be used, mainly to back up variable solar and wind power, they still mean that the chances of achieving net zero emissions from electricity by 2035 look slim.

On this episode of Wood Mackenzie's The Energy Gang, Ed Crooks is joined by Amy Myers-Jaffe, Director of NYU’s Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab, who returns to the show to explore the feasible paths to net zero in light of increased energy demand. Also joining this week is Samantha Gross, Director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Together they debate the outlook for electricity demand and take stock of the implications for the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.

One big question: Is it time to give up on the objective of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C? The world looks like crossing that threshold soon. In fact, on one measure, we have already crossed it. The 1.5 degrees C limit has been seen as essential to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But John Kerry, who just stepped down as President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, said recently that the world was on course for more like 2.5 degrees of warming. Many businesses still have alignment with a 1.5 degree scenario as one of their climate goals. Ed, Amy and Samantha discuss whether it’s time to face reality and set new goals that are more likely to be achievable.

And finally, more evidence that despite all the negative commentary around EVs, on a global scale the industry is doing just fine. In China, sales are surging and prices are falling. Sales of what China calls “new energy vehicles” – that is, battery electrics, plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles – were up 37.5% in the first two months of 2024 compared with the same period of 2023. In that period – January and February of 2024 – those New Energy Vehicles took 33.5% of the car market. The prices are on the way down too. Reuters has calculated that BYD has cut the prices of its EVs by an average of 17%. This seems like great news for cutting emissions and eventually decarbonising road transport. But what does it mean for the car industries in other countries?

You can find us on most platforms – we’re @theenergygang. Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or Spotify so you don’t miss the next one, out every second Tuesday.