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100% Renewable Electricity to Power the World by 2050? It's Happening, Study Says

Renewable Energy
Windorah's Solar Farm dishes taken from the roadside (Diamantina Developmental Road) on a hot summer day. Aaronazz / Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

If you think a world powered by 100 percent renewable electricity—and significantly cheaper than today's—is an impossible dream, there's a surprise in store for you. A new study says it's already in the making.

A global transition to 100 percent renewable electricity, far from being a long-term vision, is happening now, the study says. It is the work of Finland's Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and the Energy Watch Group (EWG), and was published at the UN climate change conference, COP23, which is meeting here.


The authors say a global electricity system based entirely on renewable energy will soon be feasible day in, day out, at every moment throughout the year, and would be more cost-effective than the existing system, based largely on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Current renewable energy potential and technologies, crucially including storage to guarantee a constant power supply, can generate sufficient secure power to meet the entire world's electricity demand by 2050, they argue. With political backing it could happen even sooner.

The total levelized cost of electricity—roughly, the average cost—for 100 percent renewable electricity in 2050 would be €52/MWh (approximately $68/MWh), compared with €70/MWh (approximately $92/MWh) in 2015.

There is no silver bullet in their approach. Their model—the first of its kind, they say—simply simulates the most efficient energy supply with an optimal mix of technologies and locally available renewable resources.

A transition to 100 percent renewables would bring greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector down to zero and drastically reduce total losses in power generation. It would create 36 million jobs by 2050, the study says, 17 million more than the sector has today.

Cost saving

"There is no reason to invest one more dollar in fossil fuel or nuclear power production," said EWG president Hans-Josef Fell. "Renewable energy provides cost-effective power supply.

"All plans for further expansion of coal, nuclear, gas and oil must be stopped. More investment needs to be channelled into renewable energies and the necessary infrastructure . Everything else will lead to unnecessary costs and increasing global warming."

"A full decarbonization of the electricity system by 2050 is possible for lower system cost than today, based on available technology. Energy transition is no longer a question of technical feasibility or economic viability, but of political will," said Christian Breyer, lead author of the study and professor of solar economy at LUT.

His last point has been made many times already. Nearly five years ago researchers said Australia could by 2023 rely entirely on renewable energy—if it could summon up enough political will.

In 2014 another study said it was only a lack of political determination that was preventing the world switching away from fossil fuels altogether. And earlier this year, in one of his last presidential statements, Barack Obama said he believed the U.S. was engaged in an "irreversible shift" to clean energy.

Losses cut

The world population is expected to grow from 7.3 to 9.7 billion people this century. Global electricity demand is likely to double by mid-century, from 24,310 TWh in 2015 to around 48,800 TWh by 2050. Because of their rapidly falling costs, solar photovoltaic (PV) power and battery storage increasingly drive most of the electricity system.

Global greenhouse gas emissions would be significantly reduced, the study says, from about 11 GtCO2eq in 2015 to zero emissions by 2050 or earlier, as the total LCOE of the power system declines.

The losses in a 100 percent renewable electricity system are around 26 percent of total electricity demand, compared with the current system in which about 58 percent of the primary energy input is lost.

The study is a challenge for policymakers and politicians, the authors say, as it refutes an argument frequently used by critics of renewable fuels—that they cannot provide a full energy supply on an uninterruptible basis.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

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Jessica Kourkounis / Stringer

The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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