Clean Power

Published on October 2nd, 2012 | by DeSmog Blog


95% Renewable Energy World Possible by 2050 with NO Technology Breakthroughs

October 2nd, 2012 by  

This is a great post on an even greater recent study showing that we can get to a 95% renewable energy world by 2050 with no technology breakthroughs at all. Check it out:

No Breakthroughs Necessary: 95 Percent Renewable Energy Possible By 2050

It’s a commonly held belief, even within the climate action advocacy community, that significant technological breakthroughs are necessary to harness enough clean, renewable energy to power our global energy demands.

Not so, says a new study published this month, which makes an ambitious case for “sustainable sources” providing 95 percent of global energy demand by mid-century.

This new analysis, “Transition to a fully sustainable global energy system,” published in Energy Strategy Reviews, examines demand scenarios for the major energy use sectors – industry, buildings, and transport – and matches them up to feasible renewable supply sources.

Over on VICE’s Motherboard, Brian Merchant dug into the study and put it into proper context.

It is entirely possible, using technologies largely available today, to power nearly the entire world with clean energy—but we need to conjure the will to make revolutionary strides in public policy and the scale of deployment.

His take is smart and thorough, and rather than excerpting him too heavily here, I’m going to urge you to go read his entire piece.

I’ll admit, I opened the report with a bit of healthy skepticism. I’ve been spending a whole lot of time lately buried in EIA andIEA reports while working on an Energy 101 primer. The picture painted by the mounds of energy data and exhaustively-calcuated projections is not a pretty one, particularly as it portrays future demand.

Energy demand, you see, is growing exponentially, and that growth lies at the heart of the great global energy (and climate) challenge. You’d be awfully hard-pressed to find any energy experts out there – even the biggest boosters of renewables – who would argue that we could ever meet future needs with existing renewable technologies alone, if rates of consumption continue as they are.

So I was encouraged to see that this new “Transition” report addresses demand right off the bat. (Emphasis mine.)

The energy scenario we have presented combines the most ambitious efficiency drive on the demand side with strong growth of renewable source options on the supply side to reach a fully sustainable global energy system by 2050. Both are important: the transition cannot be achieved on the supply side alone.

This is key. As is clear in this overview graph from the report, for renewables to provide 95 percent of energy demand, global consumption would have to peak around 2020 and fall over time to levels just below where they were at the turn of the millenium.

It does have to be said that this is pretty ambitious thinking (and the authors say so themselves). This graph shows the report’s projections next to a bunch of other reference cases, all of which land higher. (A quick aside for the real energy wonks out there: all of this Transition report’s energy numbers are “final energy,” not “primary energy.”)

Fortunately, even these wildly ambitious reductions are possible, and the authors lay out case-by-case, sector-by-sector, how it could actually happen, mostly through efficiency and electrification. It must be emphasized: the drop in energy demand does not involve any consequent reduction in economic activity or quality of life.

It is imperative to understand that the reduction of total energy demand in this scenario is not derived from a reduction in activity. It depends primarily on the reduction of energy intensity through aggressive roll-out of the most efficient technologies.

We’re talking about increased energy intensity in industry (more output per Joule input, you could say). We’re talking about more plug-in hybrids and better batteries and better mass transit service urban hubs. We’re talking about more telecommuting and buildings that don’t leak heat and smarter shipping systems. We’re not talking about shivering in a cold, dark home.

So where will the energy come from?

Even under this ambitious demand scenario, we’re still going to need about 260 exajoules worth of final energy annually to power the planet. Where will it come from, and what do the report’s authors count as “sustainable” energy sources?

In brief: solar (concentrated heat and power, and photovoltaic), wind (on- and offshore), hydro, geothermal (for heat and power), small amounts of wave and tidal, and a whole raft of bioenergy sources.

Now that, as Merchant put it, “is what an ‘all-of-the-above energy strategy’ looks like.”

What about cost?

Here’s where you – you pragmatist you – start thinking, that looks great, but could we ever afford it?

It’s a worthwhile question, and one you can be sure that the fossil fuel apologists and politicians (plenty of overlap, I know) will be crowing on about. While this report focused predominantly on the “technical feasibility,” and recognizes that it “does not necessarily present the most cost-efficient way of achieving this goal,” it does refer to an accompanying publication that puts the bill at under 2 percent of global GDP during the investment-heavy early years.

While 2 percent of global GDP might sound like a lot, remember that Sir Nicholas Stern’s landmark “Economics of Climate Change” report found that the “overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDPeach year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more.”

What’s more, the 2 percent of global GDP is a short-term expense that itself pays off in terms of energy costs alone (putting climate aside, foolish as that may be). The Transitions report finds that “in the later years of the assessed time horizon, the net financial impact would be positive, i.e. the energy system proposed in this scenario would be significantly cheaper to operate by 2050 than a BAU system.”

What’s the hold-up?

In short: politics, perspective, ambition.

To achieve such a bold goal we need to combine aggressive energy efficiency on the demand side with accelerated renewable energy supply from all possible sources. This requires a paradigm shift towards long-term, integrated strategies and will not be met with small, incremental changes.

Now long-term thinking sure isn’t our society’s strong suit. If only a report like this was taken as seriously by the media as a totally non-sensical graph and hollow “plan” for “North American energy indepedence.”

Image credit: Shutterstock | James Steidl


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  • Patrick

    The problem with this study is that biofuels are not renewable or sustainable. Plants absorb nutrients from the soil which must be returned to the soil. The waste from the animal that eats the plant and the animal that eats the animal must be returned to the soil in order to prevent the soil from being depleted of nutrients. Currently we do not do this, and are only able to maintain the nutrient content of the soil by adding fertilizers derived from fossil fuels. With biofuels, the nutrients used to grow the plant are made irrecoverable because the plant wastes are ultimately burned. Therefore the only way to grow biofuels continuously is with fossil fuels. If something depends on fossil fuels it is not sustainable. Therefore, biofuels are not sustainable.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Perhaps this should be stated more in the line of we need to assure that biofuels are produced in a sustainable fashion.

      Switchgrass. It needs a small amount of fertilizer during its first year when it is getting established but none once established. It fixes large amounts of organic matter in the soil, helping to improve quite marginal soil. It also sequesters carbon below the soil’s surface.

      Canola can be grown during the time of year when wheat fields are otherwise standing fallow. In addition to a usable bio-oil it increases organic matter in the field and prevents runoff. This preserves top soil and helps keep fertilizer from washing into our waterways and oceans.

      Algae or duckweed grown in waste water take nothing from the soil. In fact, they can take nutrients which would end up in waterways and turn them into fuel and animal feed. That animal feed can be used for methane production and the residual elements returned to the soil.

      If we process the plant/plant waste for energy and return the non-used elements to the soil we can at least approach sustainability.

  • Pingback: Trillion Fund news digest: renewables, investment and renewable investment | Trillion Fund® | Blog()

  • jonesey

    Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute come to pretty much the same conclusion: nearly 100% renewables by 2050, with essentially flat demand, with only incremental, normal advances in technology.

    They make a compelling case that there is a tremendous business opportunity in the changing energy economy. Those companies (and countries, as another commenter said) that lead will have a large economic advantage over those that lag.

    And as for the EIA, they are a great source of information about what has happened in the past. Their predictions have always been terrible. Go back and find EIA predictions from 10, 20, 30 years ago (600 new nuclear plants, really?) and you’ll see a consistent pattern of missing the mark by a long shot. They consistently overestimate future demand/consumption growth.

  • dynamo.joe

    I don’t think the problem will ultimately be political will or greed, it will be NIMBYs.

    You had another article saying 90% of the population favor renewables or solar, I forget. But I bet those numbers go way down if you add the phrase “in you neighborhood”.

    How much trouble did that wind farm off Rhode Island run into with people saying “you will ruin my view”?

    I remember reading articles about a proposed solar plant in the San Luis Valley that was going to use SES stirling cycle solar. But at a public hearing people were crying “I moved from the city to get away from the noise and now you are going to fill my valley with engines”. And “I came here to live with nature not look at a stupid solar farm”. Never mind the fact that stirling engines don’t really make a lot of noise and that solar farms look alot like lakes from a distance.

    You could call this a political problem, but unless the gov’t is will to be really heavy handed these kinds of people can easily use the same arguments and tactics that are used against Nuke plants against large solar and wind farms.
    As for the greed, the so called “entrenched fossil fuel interests” could actually give a crap less about fossil fuels. They care about profit margin and if you show them that they can increase that profit margin by migrating to solar or wind they will happily screw you over using wind as their tool rather than oil wells.

    • jonesey

      Well, I guess you’ll just have to call me a YIMBY. I wanted solar “in my neighborhood” so much that I put it on my roof! I think my neighbors’ south-facing asphalt-shingle roofs are a sad sight — I cringe at all of the wasted PV potential.

      I don’t think I’m the only one. Take a look at any city in Germany.

      • dynamo.joe

        I don’t think you are the only YIMBY, but I think there are plenty of the other kind.

        I’m sure that if you tried to install a large wind farm here on the front range of the Rocky Mountains, there would be people who would say “why would you want to ruin that million dollar view, put it somewhere else, like out on the plains”.

        Anyway, the point is everyplace is someone’s favorite place. Some percentage of those will believe that a large industrial presence will spoil that “most beautiful spot in the world”. And some percentage of those will be wiling to take action to prevent it.

  • logicek

    I see this as a race to energy independence among the world’s nations. Those who are left in the dust with outdated energy sources lose big. Those who lead win big. Now, do you want to be a loser or a winner?

  • Bob_Wallace

    Sounds like what this study has done is take Jacobson and Delucchi’s 2009 study that showed how we could get 100% of the world’s energy needs from renewables and arrive at that place in 20 years and stretch it out to 40.

    They even point out the same thing holding us back – political will.

    Jacobson and Delucchi also worked through land and resource issues and calculated the number of wind turbines/solar panels we’d have to manufacture.

  • We obviously have renewable sources…the addition of hydrogen for storage solves the final problem. Example:

    Hydrogen fueling stations produce electricity, heat, and hydrogen fuel

    Two companies have announced a memorandum of understanding for marketing tri-generation stationary fuel cell power plants. The two companies include Air Products and FuelCell Energy. The two companies are working on market development to provide stationery Direct FuelCell power plants that are able to produce hydrogen, clean electricity, and usable heat.

    • Anne

      Hydrogen is an inefficient storage mechanism. You lose a lot of the energy. For now it is much more efficient to the renewable energy directly. The grid can nearly always absorb it since renewables are still a relatively small part of the energy mix.

      Longer term, a healthy mix of technologies, including on-demand sources like biofuels, hydro and geothermal combined with a strong HVDC grid backbone, demand management and storage in electric vehicles goes a long way in dealing with the variability, I doubt if very much grid storage is necessary.

      • Hydrogen is an Energy Protocol.

        Anyone can contribute to the Hydrogen Grid.

        It efficiently exchanges energy will less loss than high voltage power lines.

        It creates a soft, loosely coupled grid, where production can be local with solar and wind and hydropower.

        • Bob_Wallace

          No, hydrogen loses a lot more energy in the electricity -> hydrogen -> electricity routine than is lost in transmission. Especially with HVDC lines.

          Hydrogen has to compete against pump-up hydro and battery storage. Pump-up is about 85% efficient, batteries are 90+%.

          Overall system cost and ease to site are the other considerations. Hydrogen probably has a siting advantage over pump-up but not over batteries. Capex, I don’t know how that plays out, but fuel cells are not cheap and batteries seem to on the path to cheap.

  • Anne

    Most of the “it can’t be done” stems from oversimplification. I suspect this often happens on purpose, according to ideologic guidelines.

    The oversimplification is basing your back-of-the-envelope calculation on primary energy as a kWh figure and then using that as a basis for determining the amount of wind turbines or solar panels that we need.

    This crude approach ignores the fact that some kWh’s are more equal than others. Electricity is more equal than coal or oil.

    A conventional car travels about 1 km on a kWh of petrol. An electric vehicle can do >4 km on a kWh. That’s 75% less electric kWh’s needed.

    Heat pumps to heat buildings have a COP of 3 or more. That is 70% less electric kWh’s needed.

    In Europe, road transport and space heating accounts for (very roughly) half of primary energy use. So the assumptions make all difference.

    The fact that this report reaches the conclusion “it can be done” is simply a matter of the correct assumptions.

  • jburt56

    With ultracapacitors you could run on solar alone and have enough for comprehensive waste reprocessing.

    • Luke

      Ultra capacitors however, DO need a breakthrough in order to be able to provide a useful amount of power for a useful amount of time.

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