By Hans-Josef Fell
As prices for renewables keep falling, global energy transition will happen faster than many think. To accelerate the process, we need innovative political measures.
“More for less” was the story of renewable energy in 2016, according to the latest REN21 report. Although globally new investments in renewables dropped by 23%, a record of 161 gigawatts of new renewable power capacity worldwide was installed.
As costs of solar and wind power keep falling, a global transition to 100% renewable energy is a reality which is unfolding much faster than skeptics think. Already today, wind and solar are the cheapest sources of electricity, and storage technology will soon follow. Disruptive technology improvements in the renewable energy sector as well as the search for real solutions to climate change, air pollution, poverty and refugee crises will accelerate the process.
Why do we need a full transition to 100% renewable energy?
In many regions across the world, living conditions have long been destroyed. This is the case in the heavily radiation contaminated areas Chernobyl and Fukushima; in crude oil regions of Syria, Iraq, and Sudan where conflict over raw materials has escalated into war, in some South Pacific islands which are under threat of flooding due to the rising sea level, and in cities with air pollution.
By signing the Paris Agreement, the world community has committed to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this target, we need a two-fold strategy: to bring greenhouse gas emissions to a halt and to remove surplus carbon from the atmosphere. A key aspect of this strategy is a transition to an emission-free global economy. The Paris Agreement targets can be achieved only if we switch to a full-scale renewable energy supply by 2030 at the latest.
How can a full-scale transition to renewable energy be achieved?
All types of renewable energy sources and storage technology need to be used. Solar and wind energy will deliver the largest input. During the fluctuations, hydropower, geothermal, bioenergy, and tidal energy will help to cover the energy demand.
Pump storage systems, for instance in disused mines, batteries in all diverse forms, power to gas and power to liquid, as well as flywheel generators, will compensate for solar and wind energy fluctuations. Batteries will also deliver the necessary system services previously provided by old coal and nuclear power plants.
Retrofitting and constructing power grids will also play an important role. Intelligent smart grid systems are beneficial not only for decentralized distribution networks, but also for offsetting winter periods of dark days with no wind — a phenomenon known as “Dunkelflaute” in German — by means of large cross-regional transmission lines. One thing is clear: decentralized deployment with at least 80% energy from the region for the region holds the key to 100% renewable energy.
Energy demand in the heat/cooling, transport, agriculture, construction, industrial production, and desalination sectors will be covered by electricity through e-mobility, heat pump systems, power to fuel solutions, as well as a raw material base for crude oil replacement in synthetic chemistry.
In global air traffic or overseas shipping, synthetic fuel generated by solar, wind and sustainable biofuels will help to accelerate the transition. Biofuel crops such as jatropha, rapeseed, and sunflowers should be planted on degraded lands, which will exclude the risk of deforestation and will create carbon sinks. Moreover, sustainably grown plant-based oil can help to replace natural gas and crude oil in organic chemistry.
First ever modeling of a 100% renewable energy world on an hourly basis
Critics of energy transition often use solar and wind fluctuations as their major argument. Until now, there was a lack of a global modeling, which would show the amount of renewable energy required on an hourly basis across all regions of the world — a Herculean task even for modern supercomputers and data collectors.
In previous years, such modeling has been the focus of a research team led by Professor Christian Breyer at the Finnish Lappeenranta University of Technology. Breyer’s research findings in India, Northeast Asia, MENA, South America, and Eurasia are revealing. First, they prove that 100% renewables can provide full energy supply at any hour year-round. Second, they show that such an energy system is the most cost-efficient. Only five to seven euro cents per kWh would suffice to finance investment in energy generation, storage and distribution. No other kind of energy supply is cheaper than that.
The Energy Watch Group, together with the Lappeenranta University of Technology, is currently working on a study titled “Global full energy supply with renewable energy.” It will analyze a global 100% renewable energy system on an hourly resolution for one reference year and present results on electricity, heating, mobility, desalination and industrial energy demand. In addition, the study will look closer into carbon sink potential of plant-based oil production on degraded lands. The first study results on electricity are expected in November this year.
Measures to accelerate the transition to 100% renewable energy
The global movement for 100% renewable energy has been rapidly growing.
On a global scale, hundreds of cities including Vancouver, San Francisco, Munich, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Geneva, Doha, and Sydney as well as entire nations such as Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland have set the bold goal of 100% renewable energy.
Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Nicaragua have already achieved this goal in the electricity sector or are about to achieve it. At the Marrakesh Climate Conference in 2016, the group of 48 developing countries most vulnerable to climate changes committed to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050.
The public support for a transition to renewable energy and strong green entrepreneurship are decisive driving forces. But, we also need new innovative political measures to encourage investments in network integration and sector integration. One political measure can deliver precisely this: combined cycle renewable power plant remuneration.
The technology for such an energy system is available today and can be implemented in physical or virtual combined cycle-power plants. Investments from an intelligent mix of combined renewable energy facilities can meet the necessary requirement for full energy supply at all times.
To this end, I suggest a rate of remuneration for combined cycle renewable power plants running on 100% renewable energy, which will balance the fluctuations within their local supply area and will reduce the responsibility of grid operators.
Advantages of combined cycle renewable power plant remuneration
- A transition to 100% renewable energy in such regional networks is cheaper than on the national level. Regionally organized energy systems significantly reduce the need for power grid expansion and network services.
- Conventional power plants and balancing capacity will not be needed anymore.
- Local companies and citizen communities will join the business, strengthen the local economy and create new local jobs.
- As power to heat is indispensable for combined cycle renewable power plants, the use of renewable energy will also advance in heating and transport sectors.
- Power supply security and flexibility will increase significantly.
The time is ripe. We need a strong political and social movement to accelerate a global transition to 100% renewable energy. Otherwise, more and more regions around the world will fall victim to wars fought for the last fossil fuel reserves.
20 million climate change and war refugees are reason enough to overcome the remaining obstacles and to complete the global transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030 at the latest.