No Breakthroughs Necessary: 95 Percent Renewable Energy Possible By 2050

Shutterstock | James Steidl

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 and IEA 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 GDP each 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


Evidence? You need to provide some.

What about when we include the massive backup costs for nuclear? How about when we include the massive costs for waste management and storage (which we don't know because there is no solution)? How about the cost of an inevitable nuclear meltdown?

You imagine costs for renewables that are not there. And ignore costs for nukes that are. That's why the real world is different to the world you imagine and nukes are in global decline.

in the PAcific Northwest combined cycle natgas turbines are being constructed at the same rate as the wind turbines as the (quite massive) hydro generators are only able to act as balancing agent for about 8 MW [nameplate] of wind generators.  Even that doesn't work as well as would be liked during spring runoff.

NPPs are dispatchable generators for which traditional methods are used to provide reserve for unscheduled outages.  Those are quite rare for NPPs.  The US NPPs average about 92% capacity factor, inculding scheduled outages for r&r.  That is impressively higher than for coal burners.  Of course wind turbines only have about 26% availability, at least in this region.  That's why balancing agents are needed since even that availability is not dispatchable.

You are waffling nonsense, but let's just look at one obvious piece of nonsense:

> “wind turbines only have about 26% availability”

I'm guessing you are thinking about 'capacity factor' which does not mean wind turbines are “available” that percentage. You need to learn some basic and research some *facts* before typing more.

Here's a starter: Wind Turbine Net Capacity Factor — 50% the New Normal?

Nukes are in global decline as renewables climb. Fact. Expect that trend to accelerate because nukes are now so expensive they are “really hard to justify” according to the CEO of GE.

Available means ready to generate.  The capacity factor cannot exceed the availability.  Wind turbines are usually operated in must take fashion so that the capacity factor is essentially the same as the availability.  That certainly is not true for combined cycle natgas turbines, for example.

Bonneville Power Adminstration (BPA) is the balancing agent for about 8 MW [nameplate] of wind turbines.  They have determined that the availability of those wind turbines is (close to) 28%.  The capacity factor is somewhat less because for other reasons BPA must curtail some of the wind generation in the spring.

While only 5 NPPs are currently in some phase of construction in the US, I have repeatedly pointed out that other coutnries find it advantageous to plan for and then construct new NPPs to meat part of their electric power requirements.

If you want to discuss this further, I recommend taking it to an appropriate energy thread (or start another) on the Brave New Climate Discussion Forum.  It is much more convenient to use that this older thread and there are many factual resources immediate at hand.

You have clearly read some technical jargon and then made up the details yourself. You're talking nonsene.

Anyone who wants a good primer on capacity factor in preference to your babble can read this:

But the key factor to focus on is that a 'low' capcity of 30 to 50% (which is achieved by modern turbines) is not critical when the fuel is free.

> “Brave New Climate Discussion Forum”

Heh. The 'WattsUpWithThat' of energy. No, thanks!

I recommend reading the actual technical literature.  That is what I do.

What is critical for wind turbines is the lack of dispatchability.  Therefore the balancing agents must also be considered.

You don't need to agree with the scientists and engineers and other posting on BNCDF.  It is just more convenient than here.

Anyway, I'll leave you to have the last word on this thread if you wish.  I've suggested other web locations, botth highly reliable IMO.  I can't force you to consider whether the general focus on those is more correct than your current (obviously non-technically based) understanding.

Got evidence for your claim? No, of course not.

Now add in the cost of required backup for nukes and you might realise you are talking nonsense.

I replied to this.

I do my analysis the way any other engineer does it.

The insults suggest you fail to understand rational analysis.

I am very clever is not an argument.

Your belief that nukes are not in global decline and that renewables are not growing at a massive rate is ignorant, delusional nonsense.

considerable investment is going into wind turbines and solar PV; some into concentrated solar power (CSP) (which has a LCOE about 150–200% that of new NPPs).

Global decline?  I think not.  In a much earlier comment I listed various new build projects around the globe.  I missed the ones in Russia, Belorussia, Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgary and maybe Hungary and Slovakia.

You need to stop and think. Your little list of new nukes is less than the old nukes going offline - that is why there is a net decline in global nukes.

Do you understand what 'net' means?

Unclear in Japan although most are down for safety checks there right now.  Otherwise there is replacement in the UK and I'm unsure of the situation elsewhere in Europe.

In contrast there are definite plans to construct well over 100 new NPPs around the world, maybe 120 new NPPs.

If NPPs are  of interest to you I suggest you follow World Nuclear News (which has a decent file of older articles).

Do you really not get it? Plans are not nukes.

Announcing plans is quick, cheap and easy. The nuke lobby is very good at it.

Building nukes is slow, expensive and difficult. The nuke industry is notoriously bad at it.

> “…I suggest you follow World Nuclear News…”

If I wanted to read nuke propaganda I certainly would.

Nukes have been in global decline for years. The future does not look brighter as costs escalate and the competition gets even more competitive.

It's curious that nuke fans often behave like you - completely ignore facts and reality while repeating the same flawed or irrelevant opinions over and over again.

Nukes are in global decline and have been for many years.

follow IAEA guidelines and are members of both WNA and the associated safety and information exchange association.

Would that all forms of power generation (and other manufactors) so organized to promote safety.

I don’t think there is much argument about the potential of renewable energy sources, or the technologies available to convert them to deliverable energy. And certainly, greater efficiencies and energy demand-management are necessary components to the plan.

There are a few barriers to realizing this vision, however. One is manufacturing capacity – the current worldwide manufacturing capacity to produce wind, PV, solar thermal etc. is miniscule compared to the requirement – current manufacturing capacity can’t even keep up with the increase in energy demand. And who is going to invest in greater manufacturing capacity in a ‘free market’ system unless they can profit?

Then there is Jevons Paradox (or Rebound Effect) that, in short, suggests gains in efficiency result in lower energy prices that encourage greater energy consumption. Renewable energy technologies, manufactured using fossil energy have embodied energy (and embodied emissions) before installation (the more diffuse the energy source, it seems, the more embodied energy required to ‘concentrate’ the energy input). Once installed, these technologies simply dilute the initial embodied emissions. The hope is to dilute the emissions below those of fossil technologies. In a sense, renewable energy technologies are pollution-dilution machines that make fossil fuels more ‘efficient’ (more energy produced per unit of emission). Without enforced reduction of energy consumption, Jevons Paradox may wipe out gains in efficiency.

Without taking into considerations these economic and political obstacles, the fact that we could meet our demand with renewable energy technologies is moot. Then there is the underlying assumption that we can maintain BAU economic growth over this period (for example, the discussion that half of the built structures in 2050 will have been built since 2005 is a questionable projection of current growth into the future). In short, other environmental/resource barriers to sustaining an overdeveloped society aren’t considered.

These arguments have been better expressed by Minoru Kyo in a recent book called ‘Already Extinct’.

Your reasoning is much the same as someone in 1910 claiming cars cannot replace horses. Or someone in 1980 claiming it would be very difficult for everyone to have a cell phone because there is not enough manufacturing capacity.

You have not considered all factors re. Jevons Paradox. There are multiple reasons it does not apply as you have tried to use it. See:

The Jevons Paradox: Time to Send it The Way of the Dodo?

Actually, my argument is that horses cannot replace cars without social (political/economic) aspects being evaluated (which this article does not do).

As for manufacturing capacity, this is a quote from WorldWatch:

“A recent analysis found that in order to produce enough energy over the next 25 years to replace most of what is supplied by fossil fuels, the world would need to build 200 square meters of solar PV panelsl every second plus 100 square meters of solar thermal every second plus 24 3-megawatt wind turbines every hour nonstop for the next 25 years. All of this would take tremendous energy and materials - ironically frountloading carbon emissions just when they most need to be reduced and expand humanity's total ecological imact significantly in the short term.”

Don't get me wrong - I think we should be developing renewable energy technologies as fast as we can. My argument is that our current capacity is TINY, and given the current economics of fossil fuels, these industries are not attracting a lot of investment. Now, under a different model with heavy state intervention, this could be done. (Stalin could have done it :)


So you think going from burning fossilised plants and animals which are polluting the planet to clean, never-ending energy is a step backwards? That's just irrational.

> “…our current capacity is TINY, and given the current economics of fossil fuels, these industries are not attracting a lot of investment.”

It's clear now you are writing anything that pops in your head regardless if you know what you are talking about or not.

* Renewable Power Tops Fossil Fuel Investment for First Time.

Your article (of course) is misleading in that you are comparing an emerging industry with a well established industry. The fossil infrastructure has been built and investment is for maintenance. When's the last time anyone has built a major refinery in North America? Companies would rather pipe oil from the tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico for refining than build a refinery in Alberta.

Try comparing the operating capital (replacement value) of fossil fuels with the capital invested in renewable manufacturing - you'll find the latter is 'tiny'. And also ask who is investing in Renwable Energy - Governments, per chance? (And they should, IMO, and this is my point - yet again - that the free market is not going to lead to 95% renewables providing a consumer society it's energy).

You offer more evidence that you know nothing about this subject if you think the fossil industry requires only “maintenance” to function.

Also, cherry-picking one componenent is simply stupid. You need to compare lifecycle costs and include externalities. Only climate science deniers think fossil fuels are cheap or even viable.

I note you did not respond to anything I wrote in my previous comment. You seem dishonest as well as uninformed.

Here's an example:

I have invested over the last 20 years in automobiles. I own a fleet of them. To keep them running I have to replace parts now and again - but I have $60,000 in investment and it costs me $1000 each year to keep them running.

By buddy wants to own a fleet of cars. She has to spend $3000 a year to have what I have in 20 years.

She invests more than me each year, but I have many more cars than her.

Now before you go off the rails that I own a bunch of cars (which I don't). Consider your RE manufacturing. They may invest more in a single year but their in-place capacity to produce energy is tiny compared to fossil fuels. It's just the way it is - though, not the way we might want it.

And you still haven't told me how we are to stop the consumption of fossil fuels to allow RE technologies to achieve 95% of our energy demand. Or are you suggesting that we expand our economy twentyfold while maintaining fossil fuel consumption? This brings me back to my other point - energy is only one dimension of our challenges. To talk about one without the others is misguided (Leibig's Law of the Minimum).

People who need to go off on analogies for technically specific issues like energy are basically admitting they don't have a clue what they are talking about. And you have proved that to be the case over and over again.

Your continuing failure to respond to anything I wrote in my previous comment shows you are very dishonest as well as uninformed.

People who need to go off on analogies for technically specific issues like energy are basically admitting they don't have a clue what they are talking about. And you have proved that to be the case over and over again.

Your continuing failure to respond to anything I wrote in my previous comment shows you are very dishonest as well as uninformed.

P.S. Your out of date WorldWatch quote suggests you think it's hard therefore we should give up. You're free to do that if you want.

But really that quote makes a range of assumptions that are highly disputable and some glaring errors - such as ignoring the massive increase in efficiency as a result of electrifying transport and industry.

We have two choices. Either we get on with it and start the transition as fast as possible, or we listen to people like you whine about how difficult it is.

Let's keep it simple for you. The world uses upwards of 500 EJ of energy. Take PV with a 12 to 14% conversion efficiency, a wind turbine with a generous 40% capacity factor, allow them EROEIs of 10:1 and 20:1 respectively, and do the math. You can try to dismiss anything that doesn't fit your venture-capitalist viewpoint, but serious people are trying to put the whole picture together - techology + politics + economy. Discussing one without the others is not useful.

I do agree with you that we should begin the transition as soon as possible. Whining aside, this is going to require a serious discussion about the reality of building RE to maintain a consumer culture. The transition is going to be a political challenge (conserving existing fossil fuels, reduce emissions, invest in RE manufacturing, creating food and energy resilience, etc.). I can assure you that I am not hand-wringing by the lifeboat - but a blind belief that technology will save us does more harm than good.

It's hilarious that under an article that details a report from experts that shows how to reach almost 100% renewables, you think you know better plucking 4 or 5 numbers from thin air.

Delusional Dunning Kruger does not cover it!

Still, no one is listening to you and your confused blabbing, and renewable energy deployment continues to accelerate.

I recommend everyone compares the facts against Jevons Paradox in relation to efficiency, energy reduction and renewable energy. Those who argue against these things are not persuasive.

the Ecofys report assumes at least two substantial so-called breakthroughs, one technicla and one sociopolitical.  There the title of this thread is wrong.

Whilst reading the details of the study published this month one thing that drew my attention was that the Economic costs were seriously underconsidered when creating this energy scenario. I agree the way forward is to harness enough clean renewable energy and begin to shift from the path that we are headed down that will have drastic consequences as our current needs will not be able to be met in the future with the current available resources. As we have seen with any type of mitigation action presently going on problems on using the approach to fine those polluters that have committed to reducing their emissions has greatly failed. This study and the proposals for scenarios seem abit idealic. It was mentions that the costs would be a mere 2% of the global GDP compared to the 5% we would lose if we did not switch drastically from non-renewable to clean and more efficient renewable resources but consideration has not been made for who will foot the bill. I find it hard to imagine that at an IPCC conference a small LEDC African country such as say Ghana will agree to contribute if one of the MEDC has not committed to giving a large chunk of their own GDP. I champion the effort but the logistics have just not been considered.

If you put as much effort in to analysing the cost of unmitigated climate change and the externalities of fossil fuels as you do the cost of renewables then you will discover there is no comparison with the cost of rapidly moving to clean energy.