Published on March 3rd, 2013 | by Zachary Shahan


Shell Scenario: Solar To Be #1 Source Of Energy (But Don’t Jump Yet)

March 3rd, 2013 by  

This article was originally published on Solar Love.

The solar manufacturing industry is now a highly competitive industry. Solar module companies that can’t compete are dropping like  icicles on a warm spring day. Shell dropped out of the solar module race in 2006, giving its solar business to SolarWorld.

Source: Shell

Source: Shell

Nonetheless, Shell is still quite bullish on solar energy in the long term. In one of the two future energy scenarios it just released (the New Lens Scenarios), it projected that solar would become the largest source of energy by 2070.

Solar industry enthusiasts (which I assume most of you are) know that solar power has grown tremendously in the past several years — to be specific, from about 1 gigawatt (GW) in 2000 to about 102 GW at the end of 2012. It is still a small piece of the energy or even electricity pie, but it’s growing fast. And, most importantly, it looks like it will have a very bright future.

In both of Shell’s new scenarios, which are led by Jeremy Bentham (Vice President Business Environment and Head of Shell Scenarios), the company sees global CO2 emissions dropping to zero by 2100, but through very different means. In the first, its projection is that solar will account for 37.7% of primary energy use by 2100. The company is also bullish on natural gas, electric vehicles, hydrogen (as a transportation fuel source and resource for electricity storage), biofuels, and wind power (compared to other energy sources). But there’s much more to the story than these simple statements.

Oceans & Mountains

The report includes some interesting discussions of the increasing competition between the U.S. and China; globalization, and some of the complex issues that come with that; three paradoxes, which it calles the prosperity paradox, the connectivity paradox, and the leadership paradox; the structure of the global economy; and other interesting matters.

Following that setting of the stage, Bentham and his team at Shell delve in its two new scenarios — Oceans and Mountains. They write: “These scenarios are designed to provide new lenses through which to explore these issues – or, as we explore these contrasting worlds, two panoramas: high Mountains where the benefits of an elevated position are exercised and protected, and those who are currently influential hold on to power; and wide Oceans with rising tides, strong currents, and a volatile churn of actors and events with an irregular accommodation of competing interests. These panoramas have distinctive social, economic, and political features that can be discerned over the next 20 years or so, with consequences for energy developments over half a century. Together these shape ecological outlooks beyond 2100. They form the New Lens Scenarios for the 21st century.”

For those of us concerned about societal suicide through climate change, neither scenario is particularly optimistic. In Mountains, world temperatures increase well beyond 2°C by 2050 (a politically agreed upon target that is still concerning in the level of catastrophe it brings to humanity). Really, the Mountains scenario relies on a great deal of carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the second half of the century in order to reach zero net CO2 emissions by 2100:

Shell Mountains CO2 emissions

And if you thought the Oceans scenario would be better due to the higher penetration of solar power, you’d be mistaken. The long and broad use of oil, coal, and natural gas in this scenario still paint a bleak climate future. Shell writes: “Global economic growth, the continued importance of coal in power generation, and oil in transport accompany the continuing growth in greenhouse gas emissions in Oceans. Offset by efficiencies and renewable energy, greenhouse gases reach a plateau where they remain from the 2030s to the 2050s. By this time, the elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are clearly shown to be linked with the observed increase in extreme climate events. these ultimately drive policy changes and the deployment of technologies that have been on the back burner, and complement sporadic efforts to price emissions.” Here’s the CO2 emission trend:

shel co2 emissions oceans

And here they are in one graph, compared to a 2° pathway:

global co2 emissions shell

But these are just two scenarios, with many, many, many assumptions. And the assumptions make the projections. The fact of the matter is that scenario production is just an advanced game of guessing. But it’s also a form of actively trying to shape the future. While Oceans and Mountains differ, they stay within a certain universe of options that others have gone beyond.

Furthermore, the Mountains scenario is largely about those in power retaining power to a greater degree, yet it somehow comes up with a better or at least equal CO2 emissions reduction curve. In other words, Shell promotes the idea through this comparison (which is based on innumerable and diverse assumptions) that it would be better (climate-wise) for those with more power (e.g. Shell) to retain that power. Of course, it doesn’t put it so directly, but the implication is clear.

But, again, Oceans and Mountains both stay within a certain universe of scenarios. They could both be wildly off.

But What Do Others Think?

As I noted on recently, a report by Ren21 has done an excellent job of comparing renewable energy projections or scenarios from a wide range of organizations, companies, and government agencies. That comparison shows very clearly that oil company projections/scenarios have generally been much less bullish on renewables than projections/scenarios from organizations like WWF and Greenpeace, and also less than those from “neutral” (but still very conservative) bodies such as the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Source: Ren21

Source: Ren21

Source: Ren21

Source: Ren21

From Shell: “In the New Lens Scenarios, renewables reach a 30–40% share of total energy by 2060 in Mountains and Oceans, reaching perhaps 60–70% saturation if the time horizon is extended still further. Some may be disappointed with this figure, but there are good reasons why we will do well to reach even this level.” The company then goes on to do some hand waving regarding renewable energy potential (it’s not exactly the optimist on that front). As you can see above, Shell’s highest renewable energy projections seem to be well above ExxonMobil’s and BP’s, but they’re still well below WWF’s and Greenpeace’s.

Society and Wealth

One matter discussed throughout Shell’s new report is how wealth is dispersed throughout society. For example, see this line and graph: “The original Us Gilded Age led to the ‘progressive era’, marked by the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt from 1901, after public opinion, concerned about the exploitation and abuses of the time, began to push back against its excesses. A more activist government addressed the interests of small business, farmers, and labour movements, seeking to clean up the political process and curb abuses by breaking up large businesses and monopolies. The work of journalists and activists such as Ida Tarbell was seminal to this movement. But it was not until President Wilson’s introduction of estate and income taxes and his reforms against trusts, followed by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, that income inequality began to be compressed. The New Deal effectively ended the Gilded Age and gave rise to a society of broadly shared prosperity and a period of stable growth that continued until Reagan’s era in the 1980s, when social and economic divides began to widen again.”

gilded age

The attractiveness of decentralized solar power that lets common citizens share in the wealth of the tremendously large energy industry, or at least stop giving their own wealth to it, is a powerful force that many of us solar enthusiasts presume may stimulate exponential growth in solar for years to come. If that happened, solar could even go way beyond the projections in Shell’s Oceans scenario, especially if combined with a similar growth in electric vehicles.

However, that is a great threat to many of the super rich, which the graph above shows have taken over the economy since the beginning of Reagan’s term as president. As such, there is great pushback from these rich and powerful people, rigging of the energy policy landscape wherever they can accomplish it, and enough misinformation put out there and repeated constantly to confuse the public and keep many people asleep to the potential of a democratized energy system. The question really is how much those at the top of the economic ladder will or will not keep the masses from bringing about a solar revolution in the coming decades (which would also likely be combined with an EV and energy efficiency revolution).

Of course, there are many other societal factors to consider. But I think this post covered enough for now. Like it? Share it with your friends and family!

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • Bob Higgins

    Shell’s time scale of 60-80 years to achieve a significant shift to solar seems more influenced by when they might pump the last bit of oil and gas from the poisoned Earth than by any realistic potentialities. Unambitious, to say the least, but what the hell it’s Shell.

    • agelbert


  • I would say that solar is the only new energy source to be installed after 2020 because coal, nuclear, natural gas and even wind cannot compete economically. Old nukes and coal plants are still online (with subsidies) until their life span expires, but after 2020 there wont be any new large scale energy investments, expect solar. Northern latitudes there might be some thermal electricity generation due to heating purposes on winter.

  • Roger

    2070? Far too soon. Let’s make it 2250 or around the time the Dutch Indies were predicted to gain independence.

    • anderlan

      Zing. Here’s hoping the petrol company’s estimate is way, way, way, way off.

  • Shell suggests solar will be the largest energy source by 2070 – sounds impressively slow to me. Uptake rates of technology are never glacial in pace – in my home state of Western Australia the swap from coal to gas was less than 30 years – 65% of electricty generation in the state was from coal in 1979 moved for purely economic reasons to 65% from gas in 2009. Technology shifts are usually rapid and measured in the lifetime of a commodity – for smartphones 1-2 years, for household appliances maybe 3-5 years, for motor cars 10-12 years, and for large electricity generation around 25-30 years. Once a change commences, the rest is history.

  • question

    Let’s see… 87 years ago… that’s like folk in 1926 predicting the economy today. I think they might have missed something…

  • wattleberry

    Up to now governments, with their ‘minimal risk’ policies, have been able to hold back the rate of change,encouraged of course by big business. However, they will soon have to address an even more powerful force-the growing demand for urgent action to tackle the increasingly frequent and dangerous weather events occurring much sooner than the models predicted.
    For this reason, I’m now convinced that we are already witnessing the start of the Second Industrial Revolution which will transform the production and use of energy more rapidly than anyone has anticipated, consigning the established scenario to history as nothing more than a necessary but temporary platform to develop the technology to facilitate it.
    We can now,for the first time, look forward to a future which, properly and peacefully managed, can provide for our needs with no expiry date.
    Bring it on!

  • JustSaying

    Dont look at the man behind the current. Yes we need to change but not unti 2040 when thing will be ready. Just keep give us your money, leave the worring for your grand or great grandkids.

  • Fredrik

    If someone talks about year 2100 he or she has another real agenda, which is to keep things as they are for the foreseeable future. Not a big surprise, when Shell or BP pays.

    Keep focus on what can be done by 2015 or 2020 — quite a lot in fact, as for electricity, and enough to point out the future (2030) for transport.

  • Ross Chandler

    Does anyone take these forecasts from the old economy vested interests seriously any more? 10% oil 87 years from now; give me a break.

  • tibi stibi

    even at this moment in time if find it unbelievable that many people still rather send their money to companies for their energy than that they send their money to a solar company to invest in their own energy production.
    with price declines year on year and month on month not installing solar will be making less and less sense and the time that almost everyone with a roof will have solar on it will came sooner than all these scenario’s.

    for company’s to create energy it will to be not economical to build a expensive coal, gas or nuclear power plant when they can generate energy cheaper with solar.

    so i don’t think shell will be right. when it would be only for the environment than yes but when money is to be saved they economy kicks in and energy generation will change in a a couple of years!!

    • Agreed, the greatest motivator for RE will ultimately be the empowerment energy consumers reap from becoming their own energy producers. We’re only at the very beginning of what RE technology can do for the democratizing of power relationships.

    • completely agree.

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