Can renewable energy sources power the world?
Can renewable energy sources power the world?

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Can renewable energy sources power the world?

8.1 95% of global energy from renewables by 2050

A study was published by the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in its 2011 Energy Report (WWF, 2011b), based on analysis by the Dutch energy consultancy Ecofys. It shows how, in the decades to 2050, the world could implement major energy saving measures, reducing the massive waste that is present in our current energy systems. Simultaneously it could phase in a mixture of wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and biomass energy sources to provide 95% of the world’s final energy demand, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 5 WWF Energy Report scenario – energy efficiency measures reducing final energy demand combined with phasing-in renewable energy sources by 2050

A series of renewable-intensive future world energy scenarios has also been produced over the past decade by the environmental group Greenpeace. Early versions were initially dismissed by sceptics as over-optimistic in their projections for the growth of solar or wind power. But these early projections have in fact proved pessimistic, given the high growth rates that have been achieved in recent years.

Figure 6 shows the growth of world primary energy use between 1960 and 2010. It also shows projections for 2050 from Greenpeace’s Advanced Energy (r) Evolution scenario (Greenpeace, 2010) and from the IEA ‘Blue Map’ scenario (see below). As in the WWF scenario, energy demand in the Greenpeace scenario is reduced by implementing energy efficiency improvements. By 2050 more than 80% of the world’s (reduced) energy consumption would be supplied by a mixture of hydro, wind, biomass, geothermal, solar and ocean energy sources.

Figure 6 World energy use 1960–2010 and in IEA Blue Map and Greenpeace Advanced scenarios for 2050

Watch the following video, in which the optimistic projections in Greenpeace’s ‘Advanced Energy Revolution’ scenario, are compared with the much more pessimistic projections of the oil company BP. Further studies are discussed, showing that the world could be entirely powered by renewables without fossil or nuclear fuels by around 2040. However, a dissenting note is sounded by one of the interviewees, who believes the idea of achieving 100% renewables by 2050 is ‘ridiculous’.

The video then goes on to suggest that an all-renewable world is not only possible but desirable, given the need for a transition to zero carbon energy sources to mitigate the serious impending consequences of global climate change.

Download this video clip.Video player: track_06_renewable_energy_and_the_uk_can_renewable_energy_power_the_world.mp4
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The share of renewable energy in the future? That's a tough question, and also an issue of much debate. You have scenarios done by, for instance, called the Energy Revolution Scenario, which has been published, commissioned, by Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council. And they foresee a rather optimistic future with renewable energy contributing up to 80 or even 100 percent by 2050.
We have heard rather pessimistic views also from BP scientists who foresee something like 10 to 15 to 20 percent in the future.
The truth lies somewhere in between. Maybe we are going to manage 50 percent, but even that will be an effort. If we manage to bring down energy consumption and energy use, we might as well attain more than 50 percent, like 60% or 75%.
The frustrating thing for many of us who work on the front lines of the renewables revolution- we see every day in our vocational lives just what these technologies can do. And in my own case, solar energy- you know, with the right partners in the construction industry, we can put up a new building, solar powered, zero emissions. With brothers and sisters in the family of technologies doing the heat, we can do all the heat as well.
We've done this. We've done it with Scottish and Southern in Slough. When you don't need any nuclear or any coal or any gas or any oil for these buildings, there's enough electricity left over to charge battery cars.
So if you can do it at the level of a building, you can do it at the level of a community. You can do it at the level of the city.
When I look at the modellers who tell us that you can renewable power a modern global economy as soon as 2030 without any loss of quality of life, in fact improvements in quality of life because of the slipstream benefits of these technologies, then I absolutely think that's true.
Can renewables power the world? That's a big question. Clearly not next year. But if we move the clock forward to 2030, 2040, do I believe that renewables power the world? I guess as someone who operates a system, I've been looking for a balanced portfolio. Does renewables provide that power portfolio? I think the answer is potentially yes. You've got solar. You've got storage in Norway. You've got wind in parts of Scotland, England. So you've got a portfolio there, but you then need the transmission network to facilitate that connection.
The question is, how affordable will it be? If the costs keep falling, as they do today, do I believe that's achievable? I certainly believe that's achievable.
Well, of course I think it's absolute daft to see all these things of 100 percent renewables- by which I presume people are meaning modern renewables- by 2050. When we come to electricity globally, we are about 3% of global electricity supply from modern renewables at the present time. How the hell are we going to get to 100 percent by 2050? It's ridiculous.
We have not been looking at those countries who have potential. For instance, solar electricity generation. I mean, the Sahara as such can power Europe, Africa, and most of Central Asia. If you put CSP there and just run a couple of high voltage lines there- this is putting it way to easy, but in terms of potential, we have a vast potential in Northern Africa and in the Arab peninsula.
It is possible for renewables to provide all the energy we need by perhaps the middle of the century. It will involve certain improvements in energy efficiency, reducing our energy demand, as well as a dramatic scaling up of how much renewal energy we produce. It's going to be a difficult process. But I think if we look at the alternatives, the consequences and the challenges that come from not doing that, then I think realistically going for a combination of renewables and using a lot less energy is actually the best and the most realistic and the most sane option we have.
End transcript
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