Infrastructure to transport and store electricity, hydrogen and CO2 is an often-overlooked – but critical – enabler of clean energy transitions. The Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) Scenario is a useful indicator of the potential needs: in the NZE Scenario, the global length of power transmission lines increases by around 185% and distribution lines by almost 165% over 2021-2050, with 85% of the additions occurring in emerging economies. Trade in low-emission hydrogen, which is almost non-existent today, covers more than 20% of global merchant hydrogen demand by 2030. Annual CO2 storage injection capacity jumps from around 42 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 per year today to around 1.2 gigatonnes (Gt) per year by 2030, requiring a huge expansion of CO2 transport and storage infrastructure.

Such rapid growth would place considerable demands on supply chains. Annual metal use for power transmission lines, distribution grids and transformers grows by around 50% in 2022-2030 in the NZE Scenario, compared to today. Copper used for grids and transformers in 2022-2030 corresponds to almost 20% of global copper production in 2030. Manufacturing power transformers requires grain-oriented electrical steel (GOES), with five countries – China, Japan, Korea, Russia and United States – today accounting for almost 85% of global production capacity of 3.8 Mt per year. Demand for GOES alone doubles to 6 Mt per year over 2022-2030 in the NZE Scenario.

Average annual material needs for power transformers in the Net Zero Scenario, 2012-2050


Average annual material needs for power transmission and distribution lines in the Net Zero Scenario, 2012-2050


Global annual investments in low-emission hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuel transport, including in pipelines, storage facilities, terminals and refuelling stations reach more than USD 50 billion over the latter half of this decade in the NZE Scenario – equal to almost 40% of current annual spending on natural gas pipelines and shipping infrastructure. With increasing demand for hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuels over time, infrastructure investments reach more than USD 80 billion in 2041-2050. 

Average annual global investment in hydrogen and natural gas infrastructure in the Net Zero Scenario, 2016-2050


CO2 infrastructure deployment also accelerates in the NZE Scenario, but it is constrained by the required lead times for developing CO2 storage capacity. Unlike for critical minerals, fewer assessments have been done to identify CO2 storage reserves. Confidence in CO2 storage availability is necessary to assure investment in capture facilities and transport infrastructure, so resources must be assessed as soon as possible.

Building clean energy infrastructure today can take more than a decade. While construction is in most cases a relatively efficient process, taking two to four years, planning and permitting can often cause delays and create bottlenecks, with the process taking two to seven years, depending on the jurisdiction and infrastructure type. Lead times for infrastructure projects are usually much longer than for the facilities that connect to them.

Average lead times to build new electricity grid assets in Europe and the United States, 2010-2021