No Breakthroughs Necessary: 95 Percent Renewable Energy Possible By 2050

Read time: 5 mins
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

Get DeSmog News and Alerts


I was really disappointed reading this paper. 

“In the scenario presented here, we use a technology-oriented approach, but use the sustainability of the energy system, rather than its cost, as the primary driving force.”
And that's the problem: it's pie-in-the-sky if you ignore costs. They also ignore the Jevons effect, which is another huge hole in the economics. So: is it technically feasible, sure, but we've known that for decades. Economically and politically feasible is something else again. Do we need centrally planned economies in every nation on earth to make this work? We would if we ignore costs.

I'll study it as soon as I have the time.

I've seen many another such report and so I am extremely skeptical as regards the practicality of what is in this one…

and on page 124 find such implausible assumptions that I'll have to wait to continue further on later.

I'm somewhat interested as the biomass component this report proposes seems incredibly high.

the biomass component is impossible.  They left out the high cost of collecting and centralizing the biomass at the reactors or burners.

By substituting nuclear power plants for most of the biomass component devoted to electricity production and lessening, considerably, that portion used to produce transportation fuels the remainder of the plan, while highly ambitious, might be feasible.

I doubt it is the least cost way to establish a low (fossil) carbon civilization.  I strongly suspect (for example) that replacing the concentrated solar power (CSP) by nuclear power plants (NPPs) would save a quite considerable sum.  This is because CSPs are almost twice the cost of NPPs on an LCOE basis.

Your belief that there is a “high cost of collecting and centralizing the biomass” is obviously false - especially in comparison to the massive cost of “collecting and centralizing” fossil fuels and uranium.

For example, many farms in Germany are now installing biogas units which process manure from the farm. Similarly, sewage treatment plants can do the same. Or waste incireation plants.

Nuclear offers no kind of solution because it is not economically viable and that is why it is in global decline as renewable growth accelerates.

I've carefully studied this.  The German biogas is subsidized; see a recent Der Spiegel article.  Sewage treatment is only possible after sewers are installed; check out the situation in India.

Off the top of my head:  Vietnam is now building the first of 10 NPPs.  China has many under simultaneous construction.  UAE is having the South Koreans build 4 of their NPPs.  Turkey is getting its first from the Russians.  Jordan is selecting its first.  South Africa and Chile are both starting by sendiing engineers off for training.  Argentina is going to have another NPP.  England is going to build several.  France has one under construction and Finland is just starting site preparation for its second new reactor.  In the USA there are 5 in various stages of construction.  India is planning on 44 I think, with the first few just starting construction.

Do we need to centralize biomass? I'd just like permission to rig up a house for woodgas. A business idea might be to win the bid, in a council, to collect the rubbish, then use it for woodgas electricity generation. Gathering the rubbish together and centralizing it really doesn't seem to be that practical. 

In the plan under discussion, a large proportion of the biomass is to be used to make transportation liquid fuels.  That takes a substantial reactor.

Smaller reactors are less efficcient, wasting more of the biomass.

Well thats not going to work is it.  Its as though we are transporting everything with railroads and canals already built. Its diesel trucks that we would be moving this gear around in. It cannot add up to much with such inherent inefficiency. Coal wasn't much of an item until they had railways everywhere. 

You make the common mistake that the nuke fan club usually makes - confusing talk about nukes as though that means completed nukes. There has always been lots of talk about nukes but it rarely resuls in nukes being built to completion.

> “France has one under construction and Finland is just starting site preparation for its second new reactor.”

Yes. The disastrous EPR projects that are billions over budget and years behind schedule.

What we know for certain is that nukes have been in global decline for years. Japan just announced it is abandoning nukes. France announced a 25% production in nuke capacity by 2025. Several other countries and corporations have announced they are no longer interested in nukes.

As The Economist recently put it, nuclear energy is “the dream that failed”.

I posted listing some of the projects planned, commencing and well under way around the world.  The net number of nuclear power plants is increasing.

Despite the difficulties with the first EPR in Finland, the Finns are planning on building another.  Despite France's annoucned plan to scale back NPP reliance, they are going to finish the EPR under construction and then one more.

The Econmist always manages to get it wrong.

Reality does not match your beliefs. Nukes are in global decline. That is a matter of documented fact. The decline started before Fukushima but has increased massively since. Your nuke dream is over.

There are “difficulties” with each attempt at the EPR in France, Finland and China. It's a disaster - but not unusual for building nukes, which usually go massively over schedule and budget. Many are abandoned completely

2008 World Nuclear Industry Status Report. “Eleven reactors, almost one-third of the total listed, have been under construction for more than 20 years. … Two-thirds of the under-construction units have encountered significant construction delays, pushing back officially announced start-up dates.”

I find The Economist more convincing than “David B. Benson”.

the EPRs in China are proceeding well.  As are the AP1000s there.  As are the AP1000s in the US.  As are the APR1400s in the UAE.

Things have changed considerably in the nuclear reactor construction business.  You might care to actually learn about it rather than continuing to expose your ignorance.

Problems seen in Olkiluoto-type project in China. “The first two European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) construction projects at Olkiluoto and in Flamanville, France, have been plagued by problems. Now it turns out that there have been similar setbacks with another EPR project, a double reactor in Taishan, southern China…”

Sorry to spoil your dreams, but that's life for you.

World Nuclear News is prefectly prepared to report actual difficulties and has with regard to Olkiluoto and Flammeville.  As for Taishan

the civil works (done by a Chinese company) are nearing completion at #2 and I assume Areva is installing the actual reactor in #1 now.

Big construction projects almost always have some snags but there do not appear to be any major difficulties building NPPs the Chinese way.

> “World Nuclear News is prefectly prepared to report actual difficulties”

What has that got to do with your false claim that “the EPRs in China are proceeding well”?

You seem unable to follow a conversation. Then when you're proved wrong you simply assert the same false claim.

Simple or troll?

Your belief that there is a “high cost of collecting and centralizing the biomass” is obviously false - especially in comparison to the massive cost of “collecting and centralizing” fossil fuels and uranium.”

In the context of Tsunamis, Earthquakes and War an argument could be made that the nuclear reactors are dangerous. I think this is not necessarily the case. But this is not what you are talking about. Uranium expensive to transport? You have to be kidding man. Its the single most concentrated fuel in current commercial use. Biofuel so far is an energy drain. Plus its taking land out of food production so so far its a case of mass-murder. If you want to start out insulting you ought to have a command of the argument. So far you are writing checks your brain cannot cash. 

David, the article you need to discuss with is this one:

What I take away is that what makes the demand on biofuels so high is (quote):

  • Transport fuels where energy storage density is often a crucial factor; especially:
    • Long distance road transport
    • Aviation
    • Shipping
  • Industrial fuels where electric or solar heating is insufficient; especially:
    • Applications that require very high temperature, e.g. for industrial processes.
    • Applications that require a specific energy carrier, e.g. a gaseous fuel or solid fuel. One example is the steel industry where the structural strength of a solid fuel is required.

All of these are 'hard': you would want to move to using electricity, but you don't manage because of the above restrictions. And then, nuclear doesn't help either. So if your belief is right that using biofuels for all this is unrealistic, it means that fossil fuels will be used.

(For the very high temp applications, burning electrolytically generated hydrogen might do. That would put nuclear and wind/solar in the running again. Also steel making using hydrogen is being studied. But not 'existing tech'.)

  I don't see these studies from tThe Netherlands as paying enough attention to the costs associated with harvesting and centralizing for, say, pyrolysis and refining.  Much of the resulting transportation fuels are then going to have to be consumed by the harvester and centralizer.  The EROEI stops looking so good, one has to devote even more land to the biofuels effort and so on.

I'm not set up to do such a study myself but after having looked into the algae oil situation, I have serious doubts that algae will ever prove to be more than a boutique solution.

The blog you cite is interesting, and it serves as a good warning that there are other factors that might limit the effect of the Jevons Paradox. 'Debunking', however, might be a stretch.

Desmog last year cited the Breakthrough Institute paper (

And this UK report (The Rebound Effect Report) is interesting

In the case of renewable energy technologies, they (hopefully) produce more energy than it took to manufacture, transport, install and operate the technology. I presented them below as being pollution diluters (as emissions are what we are concerned about). But as for being technologies that produce more energy from 'invested' energy, this is what might make one concerned about Jevons Paradox (they make the fossil fuel investe more 'efficient' by creating more energy output than the energy input). The blog cited above might make one reconsider this if economic factors like inflation are taken into consideration (as the technologies produce energy over the span of a couple of decades). 

The difficulty, I think, is flipping between energy-talk and money-talk.

The Breakthrough Institute is not a credible or reliable source for anything, e.g.:

* Mark Lynas pens error-riddled, cost-less nuke op-ed (based on flawed data from Breakthrough Institute)

And more debunking:

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

There is no “hopefully” about it - most renewable energy systems have higher EROEIs than fossils or nukes. As a result of the cost, time to deployment and lower CO2, renewables are rapidly expanding globally while nukes decline. That process will accelerate as renewables continue to fall in cost.

What's the alternative? Massive climate destabilisation that will make a growing area of the planet uninhabitable, crops to fail, water shortages which will lead to wars and collapse of society.”

The problem with this story is that it has not the slightest scintilla of basis in science. Or even just in logic. If CO2 were to work as advertised it would have a slight calming effect on climate, by way of evening out temperatures, and of course it would be a stimulant to crop growth. But no-one has detected any CO2 warming effect at sea level and the more modern data is hopelessly fraudulent and corrupted.

If CO2 levels drop quickly, as they have done many times in the recent past, we will have famines. This is a very real near-time possibility. Really it amounts to a certainty.

Energy production has to be considered a big problem in its own right, and we don't want to be muddying the water with shadow government lies and science quackery. 

Its conspiracy fact. Science isn't about belief its about evidence. The people who you claim don't have the evidence don't have it. Are you involved in a conspiracy? No you are just stupid, but there is co-ordination at the top and this can be demonstrated. 

Once again the fact remains that no evidence connects extra CO2 to warming. You cannot find the evidence, you do not have the evidence, you cannot track down anyone who has it. This is because it is not true, its simply something that people are lying about. 

That extra CO2 leads to extra warming has been thoroughly studied and established by 1979.

Try studying Ray Pierrehumbert's “Principles of Planetary Climate”.  {It took me twice through and then another time for chapters 1 & 6.]

You are lying Benson. Pierrehumberts ideas on planetary climate are ludicrous. He after all ascribes to the flat earth Watts per square metre model. 

Stop lying and admit you don't have the evidence. Why lie about it? What do you think it can achieve? You don't even have a proper CO2 construction. How can you make a causal link with something you don't have? You know you are lying. 

No you are not going to bluff your way out of it Benson. You don't have a CO2 reconstruction, you have no evidence for this fraud. If you say you have you are lying. This is a simple fact. 

study Physics 1 up to electricity & magnetism [which are not required to begin a study of plantetary climate].  Some understanding of electron orbitals will help when learning the optical properties of triatomic gases, such as CO2.  Piereehumbert's book is particular good at this point but some prior understanding of the physical chemistry helps.

No no. You are still lying. You have no evidence for this claimed effect of CO2 on average temperatures at sea level. How could you? You don't even subscribe to a realistic CO2 reconstruction.  PierreHumbert is an idiot, his paradigm doesn't work, and I know he's an idiot because I've talked to him. His bluff of writing a text-book when he has no clue about climate and weather doesn't constitute evidence for something you have no evidence for. 

Now where is your CO2 construction? Where is your data and attribution study, linking temperature and CO2 in a causal way? Its absent.  Quantum jive about orbitals that don't even represent a realistic model of the atom cannot save you here. I know you've got that electron-shell electron-jumping model which is held to release photons ex-nihilo, which race off at the speed of light for no reason. But stick with the reality that you have no evidence for the global warming fraud.

Mental pictures at the subatomic level do not substitute for evidence. Actually the photon is a myth too. And your model defies pretty well-known physical laws when you start trying to apply it to backradiation. 

But within all this the fact must be acknowledged that you have no evidence. 

electron orbitals in a first course about semiconductors and transistors.  Solutions to Schroedinger's equation can be pictured as orbitals or energy levels; I care not.  But it does explain rather well the workings of semiconductor junction physics.  Indeed, it explains quite well the rather complex optical properties of triatomic gases, but those are sufficiently complex that at least two separate sets of measured data are required for the details.

But I fear it is clear that you really need to properly understand the first part of college physics.  There are many fine textbooks and in addition many instructors offer lecture notes freely on their website. 

Basic climatology, I repeat, was thoroughly settled by 1979 (which means you are currently at least 33 years out-of-date).

Its junk science and it cannot be used in the place of evidence. Even the quantum mechanics no longer accept it. You are lying about 1979 and you should stop lying. 

It would be bad enough to be treating CO2 as the “God Of Gaps” in some supposed temperature anomaly. But you don't even have a temperature anomaly to tendentiously plug CO2 into it. The whole thing is farcical. Its not basic climatology. Its wrong climatology. It comes from the sort of goof-balls who think cyclones come out of tepid water. 

Bird…  Are you suggesting that every National Academy of Science on the planet is also lying?  And are you claiming the American Physical Society and the American Meteorological Society are also lying?  Because they all agree with what Benson is telling you.  They all agree with Pierrehumbert as well.

No mate. You are the looney tunes around here. You are a complete idiot. Everything you've said here is wrong and idiotic. You are a dim bulb. 

The alternative is a plan that makes economic sense. We can't solve the problem by throwing money at it, but we can solve the problem by throwing brains at it. What we need is an Apollo/Manhattan style project to develop non-fossil energy systems that are cheaper than the fossil fuels they replace. 

Example: Cool Planet has a proprietary process that (they claim) can make gasoline out of Miscanthus biomass for a net input cost (including energy input) of 60 cents per gallon. Maybe they're talking through their hats, but imagine for a moment they can. Who in their right mind would by fossil fuel gasoline for $3.50 a gallon when biofuel gasoline costs a buck? That's how we win. We put the fossil fuel industry out of business, the same way the fossil fuel industry put the whale-oil industry out of business in the 19th century.

See also Robert Hargraves' new book, Thorium: energy cheaper than coal for another example.

There are plenty of things that are going to work, but thats no good if the shadow government is pushing everyone into technologies that aren't going to work. Thorium will work. Tesla towers coupled with Dyson-Harrop sattelites will work. But they will be put down and degraded specifically because they will work, and solar panels are promoted because they are for the most part useless.  The problems won't be solved until we are free of our overlords. As to the Manhattan and Apollo projects, they ought to show you why this is the wrong approach.  Apollo was a fraud, and Manhattan didn't produce anything productive. 

The shadow government through NASA lies and claims that comets are snowballs. This claim is to hide the ready electrical energy we could be pulling from the ionosphere if we broke free of them. Particularly in tropical areas. A Tesla towers is really a high-tech lightning rod. 

all externalities are included nuclear power is less expensive, by quite a bit, that coal power.

Both are proven, fit-for-service technologies.  We haven't the time to wait for breakthroughs (which may never happen).

It's not coal vs. nukes.

It's nukes vs. renewables. Renewables are cheaper, faster and more reliable to deploy, cleaner, safer.

That's why nukes are in global decline while renewable deployment accelerates. That process will only speed up as nukes continue to become more expensive and renewables continue to fall in cost and improve their performance.

you are wrong at every point.  Only solar PV's costs will continue to fall for a bit.

the LCOE of wind turbines is less than that of NPPs until the required backups are considered.  What one has to compare is the LCOE of wind+backup versus NPPs.