It’s good news, bad news on the renewable energy front this week. First, the good news. The latest report from the International Energy Agency suggests as much as 1.3 terawatts of new renewable energy could come online between now and 2023 if the most optimistic scenario becomes a reality. Even if more conservative forecasts prevail, 1 terawatt of new renewable energy can be expected before that date. 1 terawatt is enough electricity to power all of Europe, the IEA says.
When people hear the phrase “renewable energy,” they usually think of wind and solar power with a smattering of hydroelectric thrown in. But the IEA’s director, Dr. Fatih Birol, says “Modern bioenergy is the overlooked giant of the renewable energy field. Its share in the world’s total renewables consumption is about 50% today — in other words as much as hydro, wind, solar and all other renewables combined. We expect modern bioenergy will continue to lead the field and has huge prospects for further growth. But the right policies and rigorous sustainability regulations will be essential to meet its full potential.”
Bloomberg reports that bioenergy includes liquid fuels produced from plants and gas from anaerobic digestion and wood pellets but excludes energy derived from biomass such as wood and animal waste. Only bioenergy that reduces life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions while avoiding social, environmental, and economic impacts should have a future role in a clean energy system, the IEA says. Bioenergy is primarly used to heat industrial buildings. “We expect modern bioenergy will continue to lead the field, and has huge prospects for further growth,” Birol says.
About 40% of the new renewable energy will be installed in China during the next 5 years, while Brazil will derive half of its electricity from renewables — mostly hydro and bioenergy — by 2023, according to the latest IEA report.
Now The Bad News
While renewables are making great strides in the electricity sector, that segment only represents about a third of the world’s total energy needs. Transportation, industry, and heating make up the other two thirds, and the impact of renewables is much less in those areas than in the energy sector. Unless policy makers address these “blind spots” aggressively, the goal of keeping average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5º C will be out of reach according to a report by CNBC.
“Indeed, their role in heat and transport is often overlooked even though decarbonizing these sectors is a key priority to achieve our long-term climate and sustainability goals,” Birol wrote in the IEA’s 2018 report on renewable energy. He says renewable energy could grow 25% faster if governments enacted policies and regulations that give companies and investors confidence to invest in clean energy.
The IEA sees China leading the world in growth of renewable energy in the next 5 years, but the rest of Asia is looking to new coal fired generating plants to provide the electricity they need to expand their economies. Europe will surpass the United States in the growth of renewables largely because policy decisions at the highest levels of the Trump maladministration are expected to favor coal and other fossil fuels over clean energy alternatives.
Trump’s unabashed support for coal and natural gas risk turning America into a third world country within a generation. Leadership involves far more than wearing hats with the initials MAGA emblazoned on them. Unless the world finds a way to dramatically reduce carbon emissions from all sectors, catastrophic climate change is virtually assured.