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What Does A Pathway Toward More Ambitious Renewable Energy Targets Look Like?

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As a necessary step to remain on track to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, the world must achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Renewable energy targets have been variously contentious, in flux, and ambitious since the Paris Agreement. Moreover, within the energy community, there has been growing debate on the feasibility of achieving a 100% global renewable energy system.

Proponents of 100% renewable energy scenarios argue that there is growing evidence that such an energy system — completely devoid of fossil fuel and nuclear energy production — is both technologically feasible and offers the lowest cost and most environmentally sustainable option for decarbonization.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Coalition for Action seeks to settle the debate as to whether 100% renewable energy targets can be achieved. In a new report, they compare three 100% renewable energy scenarios and two net-zero emissions scenarios, attempting to go beyond the feasibility debate for each individual scenario.

The study identifies common challenges and opportunities for a rapid and holistic shift towards more ambitious renewable energy targets and provides related policy recommendations. It outlines actions that can facilitate the success of such scenarios and identifies requirements to support a 100% renewable energy system by mid-century.

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The IRENA Coalition for Action states that the majority of anthropogenic emissions are due to energy-related activities. To meet renewable energy targets, harnessing technologies for solar, wind, hydro, geothermal bioenergy, ocean, and others, along with significantly increased energy efficiency measures, will be key to emission reductions.

Net zero system scenarios are fundamentally based on 2 factors:

  • gradually phasing out fossil fuels and nuclear energy while mitigating sectoral impacts
  • assuming that the use of fossil and nuclear, with carbon removal strategies, would still be needed due to perceived technical challenges to the decarbonization and electrification of hard-to-abate sectors

The 100% renewable energy scenarios differ in the milestones and exact technology and resources mix, but they do not allow for other than renewable energy sources by 2050 or soon after. Needless to say, achieving a 100% renewable energy system requires systemic changes in energy market design and infrastructure development. Long-term decisions must be implemented today, regardless of current market trends. Additionally, decisions are needed today to create an enabling environment in which the required infrastructure and capacity are readily available as we transition towards a 100% renewable energy future. A crucial approach in guiding how a 100% renewable energy system can be achieved is to examine various energy transformation scenarios.

Each of the IRENA scenarios are in line with a 1.5°C target by mid-century, which is synonymous with preferred renewable energy targets set by the Paris Climate Accord of 2015. All the scenarios examined call for:

  • energy related GHG emissions to fall to zero (or Net Zero) by 2050, if not earlier
  • a rapid reduction of emissions to about half of the current levels by the year 2030
  • energy efficiency measures to be significantly increased, so that per capita energy intensity and total final energy consumption (TFEC) are lower by 2050 than currently, even as the global population grows

Various steps to achieve these end-use energy reductions are suggested, such as greatly improved efficiencies in building design and retrofits, expanded use of heat pump technologies, and demand-side management strategies.

Electrification

Perhaps the most important common finding among all scenarios is that electricity in total final energy consumption (TFEC) will grow substantially over the next 30 years, in part due to the electrification of the industrial, transport, and building sectors. A general increase in electric goods worldwide and an overall increase in sector coupling applications are also important contributing factors. Electrification can provide anywhere from 50% to more than 90% of TFEC by 2050, compared to around 20% in 2022. Consequently, there is a need to build a significant amount of new electricity capacity and enabling infrastructure to cover the needs of these sectors.

The overall rapid expansion of the electricity sector and the growth of variable renewable energy (VRE) sources will demand a transformation of the transmission and distribution capabilities of the grid. This will require large investments to expand and enhance the grid leading to smart and highly digitalized grids, such as upgrades in control and monitoring of grids. Additional storage capacities and various storage technologies will also be required.

Finally, sector coupling is an important requirement to match VRE and flexible demand. Grid flexibility, achieved through storage technologies covering time scales from hourly to daily to seasonally, demand-side management of the load, and regional power trading, will be a major driver for a stable and reliable decarbonized energy system that still meets consumer requirements.

Solar & Wind

For solar PV, dramatic growth is expected in both distributed (rooftop) residential and commercial systems as well as large utility scale systems. For wind, significant growth in offshore and onshore wind deployments is anticipated. In all the scenarios, other renewable technologies, notably hydro, but also sustainable modern biomass use, geo- and solar- thermal systems, and wave and tidal systems will be relevant, but no other generating technology will see anywhere near the growth that will be achieved through wind and solar technologies.

Biomass

The four scenarios that include bioenergy show that biomass technologies can supply anywhere from around 6% to more than 20% of all primary energy by mid-century. The contribution of bioenergy is most prominent for residential and industrial heat sectors where it is expected to provide hot water and steam for households as well as industries such as cement, steel, paper, and pulp. The share of traditional biomass use will largely be replaced by modern biomass use, factoring in air pollution and sustainability as adoption drivers, and, overall, marginally contributing to the energy supply by 2050.

The contribution of bioenergy is limited in the transport sector, where other options such as electricity and hydrogen are more prominent. Power generation from biomass is considered complementary to other sources such as solar PV, wind, and hydropower.

IRENA Recommendations

These sources have the potential to lead the world to achieving current projections for renewable energy targets. It is against the collective findings of the previous sections that this policy brief makes the following recommendations that can facilitate the shift towards a more ambitious renewable energy system:

  1. Embrace a 100% renewable energy system and phase out fossil fuels
  2. Energy efficiency as a priority: “The [best] energy supplies are those that are not needed”
  3. Electrification: A path to a sustainable energy transformation
  4. Infrastructure for a resilient, decentralized and flexible energy system
  5. International co-operation: Paving the way for the transformation of the global energy system

IRENA ends its report with the following conclusion:

“Targeting a 100% renewable energy system will be the most compelling way to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy installations. A fully renewables-based energy system that has broad public support will result in benefits such as cost savings, energy security, and a healthier environment. Such a system remains within the boundaries of the requirements for an inhabitable planet without costly deviations, stranded investments, or prolonged carbon emissions.”


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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1310 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna