Can We Reach 100% Renewable Energy in Time to Avoid Climate Catastrophe?
By Daniel Ross
Ten years ago, two climate scientists, Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, published a groundbreaking article in Scientific American outlining a road map for becoming 100 percent reliant on energy generated by water, wind and sun by 2030. This was something that needed to be done "if the world has any hope of slowing climate change," the researchers warned at the time.
The article proved incendiary. "First of all, nobody believed it when we put out that paper in 2009," Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, told Truthout. "It was a very pie-in-the-sky thought. There was a lot of criticism of it, and the negativity around the response was enough to make anybody depressed."
Jacobson is less depressed than he was a decade ago, despite the precarious position that climate change puts us in. Yes, Jacobson's timeframe has been modified. "We're shooting for this goal of 80 percent [renewables] by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050, or ideally before 2050." That said, "I'm actually more optimistic now that it can be done because a lot of things have come together, such as lower costs of renewables like wind and solar," as well as batteries and electric cars, he added.
Nevertheless, Jacobson's glass-half-full predictions still face enormous political, social, financial and regulatory obstacles that make the rapid adoption of renewables daunting, to say the least. Indeed, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in May that investment in energy efficiency and renewables had stalled in 2018, while capital spending on oil, gas and coal supply rebounded.
"We need a serious conversation about these issues to get there," said Sam Thernstrom, founder and CEO of the Energy Innovation Reform Project, a nonprofit advanced energy technology advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia, about the push for 100 percent renewables. "That conversation, it's starting to happen, but it is painfully slow and difficult."
Where Are We Now?
Last year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report spelled out the dire environmental and humanitarian consequences should the Earth warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (1,5°C) over pre-industrial levels. To prevent this from happening, carbon emissions must be slashed to net zero by around 2050. The IPCC report lays out a series of scenarios in which the world is kept from warming over the 1.5°C threshold. In many of the scenarios where there is little to no overshoot, renewables must make up 70 to 85 percent of electricity by 2050.
According to the IEA, however, renewables generated only 24 percent of the electricity consumed in 2017, and by 2023, they're forecasted to meet only 30 percent of electrical demand.
What's more, according to the IEA, electricity accounts for only a fifth of global energy consumption. The share of renewables in the transportation and heating sectors, therefore, will have to similarly expand in the next few years and decades if the worst impacts from climate change are to be avoided — a challenge complicated by anticipated global population growth. The IEA's calculations show that even if the share of renewables in global energy demand grows as expected by one-fifth over the next five years, it still will come out at barely more than 12 percent by 2023.
"I think this transition [to renewables] will happen," said Chris Smith, a research fellow in physical climate change at the University of Leeds, England. "The question is, will it happen fast enough? Personally, I think not. I don't think we're headed for 4 degrees [Celsius] of warming, but I'd be very surprised if we managed to limit it to one and a half."
When it comes to slashing carbon emissions to zero by mid-century, there are essentially two very broadly drawn camps. On one side are those who believe that renewables can be scaled up in time to meet the world's energy demands across the three main sectors (electricity, heating and transportation).
On the other are those who believe that renewables alone won't cut it if the world is to achieve zero net emissions by the middle of this century. They argue that, as we're weaned from fossil fuels, we'll still have to rely on things like nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS) to help buttress the power grid.
Looking at both sides is Mark Delucchi, co-author of the seminal Scientific American article 10 years ago, who is now a research scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "If you're doing a cost-benefit analysis, which is a tool that I use to evaluate these things, you want to start with as broad a collection of options as possible," he said. "You don't decide a priori that every conceivable option will end up in the final highest net benefit solution."
Delucchi's recent cost analysis of clean energy systems didn't include options like nuclear and CCS, as it was designed to look at the cost and technical feasibility of only those options that provide the highest environmental benefits and lowest risks; i.e., those with zero emissions and no catastrophic safety concerns, like wind and solar.
"This does not mean that they are the most socially beneficial, as we haven't done that broad analysis," he said. "I am proposing to do that broad analysis now."
So, where does the current scientific literature stand? Thernstrom co-authored a review of 30 studies and other review articles published since 2014, which found that "there is strong agreement in the recent literature" that reaching zero or near-zero carbon emissions is best achieved by harnessing a "diverse portfolio of low-carbon resources" such as nuclear, biomass, hydropower or CCS. In another literature review, none of the 24 studies purporting to model 100 percent renewable energy systems passed this feasibility test.
"We should be looking for renewables to add value to a decarbonized grid," said Thernstrom. "That should be the goal." One way that value could be harnessed is through improvements in energy storage — an issue that came into stark relief during the polar vortex that held the East Coast of the U.S. in its grip earlier this year. If, during that weather event, grid regions spanning New England to parts of the South had been 100 percent reliant on renewables, energy storage would have needed to increase from 11 gigawatts (as it is today) to 277.9 gigawatts for the lights to remain on, according to a report by Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Globally, at the moment, 94 percent of energy storage capacity is in pumped-storage hydropower. Though more reliable than some other renewable sources, pumped hydropower faces significant market, regulatory and environmental challenges. Nevertheless, Jacobson is encouraged by what he sees as advances that have already occurred, or are occurring, in other energy storage technologies. "This is a solvable problem," he said, highlighting how prognosticators are often unable to factor in unanticipated changes in energy markets.
According to the IEA, renewables in transportation — mainly in the form of electric cars, two- and three-wheelers, and buses — have the lowest contribution of all three major sectors, with their share expected to grow from 3.4 percent in 2017 to a forecasted 3.8 percent in 2023. But there's cause for optimism when it comes to long-distance transportation, like air travel and ships, thanks to the recent investment in hydrogen fuel cells, for example.
Forecasts look better for renewable heat consumption, which is expected to increase 20 percent over the next four years, reaching 12 percent of the heating sector demand by 2023, according to the IEA. That estimate, said Jacobson, need not be so conservative. "You don't need batteries for heating," he explained. Indeed, energy-efficient heat pump systems, for example, move heat rather than generate it, helping to keep houses warm in winter and cool in the summer.
Small-scale programs offer an intriguing glimpse into the possible future. The Drake Landing community in Canada heats its homes by storing solar energy underground during the summer months and tapping into this energy reserve in winter months. During the 2015-2016 heating season, the system was 100 percent self-reliant.
"We can transform buildings, we can transform most industry," said Jacobson. "There's a long way in actual transition. But we have so much that we can transition right now, that's not what's slowing us down." Rather, what's slowing us down are regulatory, cultural and political obstacles.
One remedy, for example, to the problems posed by seasonal variability would involve the expansion over a vast geographic area of new interstate transmission lines, connecting grid regions with high seasonal variability to those with less interrupted sun and wind. However, "the hard part about interstate transmission is that there is no federal body that oversees that," explained Joshua Rhodes, a research analyst at the Webber Energy Group and the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute. "You have a multi-body problem, and it's hard to get everybody at the table to agree to the same thing."
Until politicians and regulators get to that table, many experts are looking at more local solutions. Interestingly, oil-rich Texas is a case study for renewable energy success. About 15 years ago, Texas introduced a renewable energy integration program that has led to wind and solar making up 20 percent of the state's electricity supply, comparable to California. Other regions are playing catch-up. According to the Sierra Club, at least 131 cities and nine states, districts or territories across the U.S. have committed to 100 percent renewable energy goals within a certain timeframe. Six cities have already reached those goals.
But as the latest IEA report proves, pickup overall is too slow. Climate change forecasts widely demand the adoption of renewables on a much larger and more urgent scale, which is why many experts call for broadly encompassing ideas that recognize the scale of the problem.
Declining costs for renewable energy like wind and solar give some climate scientists optimism that society can mov… https://t.co/b50UWwMR10— Truthout (@Truthout)1566678600.0
Daniel Ross is a journalist whose work has appeared in Truthout, the Guardian, FairWarning, Newsweek, YES! Magazine, Salon, AlterNet, Vice and a number of other publications. He is based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @1danross.
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Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.
If you have a question you'd like an expert to answer, please send it to email@example.com
What was the climate and sea level like at times in Earth’s history when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at 400ppm?<p>The last time global carbon dioxide levels were consistently at or above 400 parts per million (ppm) was around <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14145" target="_blank">four million years ago</a> during a geological period known as the <a href="http://www.geologypage.com/2014/05/pliocene-epoch.html" target="_blank">Pliocene Era</a> (between 5.3 million and 2.6 million years ago). The world was about 3℃ warmer and sea levels were higher than today.</p><p>We know how much carbon dioxide the atmosphere contained in the past by studying ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica. As compacted snow gradually changes to ice, it traps air in bubbles that contain <a href="https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/annals-of-glaciology/article/enclosure-of-air-during-metamorphosis-of-dry-firn-to-ice/09D9C60A8DA412D16645E6E6ABC1892F" target="_blank">samples of the atmosphere at the time</a>. We can sample ice cores to reconstruct past concentrations of carbon dioxide, but this record only takes us back about a million years.</p><p>Beyond a million years, we don't have any direct measurements of the composition of ancient atmospheres, but we can use several methods to estimate past levels of carbon dioxide. One method uses the relationship between plant pores, known as stomata, that regulate gas exchange in and out of the plant. The density of these stomata is <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/095968369200200109" target="_blank">related to atmospheric carbon dioxide</a>, and fossil plants are a good indicator of concentrations in the past.</p><p>Another technique is to examine sediment cores from the ocean floor. The sediments build up year after year as the bodies and shells of dead plankton and other organisms rain down on the seafloor. We can use isotopes (chemically identical atoms that differ only in atomic weight) of boron taken from the shells of the dead plankton to reconstruct changes in the acidity of seawater. From this we can work out the level of carbon dioxide in the ocean.</p><p>The data from four-million-year-old sediments suggest that <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2010PA002055" target="_blank">carbon dioxide was at 400ppm back then</a>.</p>
Sea Levels and Changes in Antarctica<p>During colder periods in Earth's history, ice caps and glaciers grow and sea levels drop. In the recent geological past, during the most recent ice age about 20,000 years ago, sea levels were at least <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/292/5517/679.abstract" target="_blank">120 meters lower</a> than they are today.</p><p><span></span>Sea-level changes are calculated from changes in isotopes of oxygen in the shells of marine organisms. For the Pliocene Era, <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2004PA001071" target="_blank">research</a> shows the sea-level change between cooler and warmer periods was around 30-40 meters and sea level was higher than today. Also during the Pliocene, we know the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature07867" target="_blank">significantly smaller</a> and global average temperatures were about 3℃ warmer than today. Summer temperatures in high northern latitudes were up to 14℃ warmer.</p><p>This may seem like a lot but modern observations show strong <a href="https://journals.ametsoc.org/jcli/article/23/14/3888/32547" target="_blank">polar amplification</a> of warming: a 1℃ increase at the equator may raise temperatures at the poles by 6-7℃. It is one of the reasons why Arctic sea ice is disappearing.</p>
Impacts in New Zealand and Australia<p>In the Australian region, there was no Great Barrier Reef, but there may have been <a href="https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/BF02537376.pdf" target="_blank">smaller reefs along the northeast coast of Australia</a>. For New Zealand, the partial melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is probably the most critical point.</p><p>One of the key features of New Zealand's current climate is that Antarctica is cut off from global circulation during the winter because of the big <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3402/tellusa.v54i5.12161" target="_blank">temperature contrast</a> between Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. When it comes back into circulation in springtime, New Zealand gets strong storms. Stormier winters and significantly warmer summers were likely in the mid-Pliocene because of a weaker polar vortex and a warmer Antarctica.</p><p>It will take more than a few years or decades of carbon dioxide concentrations at 400ppm to trigger a significant shrinking of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. But recent studies show that <a href="http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/521027/" target="_blank">West Antarctica is already melting</a>.</p><p>Sea-level rise from a partial melting of West Antarctica could easily exceed a meter or more by 2100. In fact, if the whole of the West Antarctic melted it could <a href="http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.695.7239&rep=rep1&type=pdf" target="_blank">raise sea levels by about 3.5 meters</a>. Even smaller increases raise the risk of <a href="https://www.pce.parliament.nz/publications/preparing-new-zealand-for-rising-seas-certainty-and-uncertainty" target="_blank">flooding in low-lying cities</a> including Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington.</p>
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East Coast leads the way<p>"There is enormous opportunity, especially off the East Coast, for wind. I am very bullish," said former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. "Market excitement is moving towards offshore wind. I haven't seen this kind of enthusiasm from industry since the Bakken shale boom," he said.</p><p>Offshore wind initiatives require excessive upfront spending: a 250 MW venture costs about $1 billion, based on International Energy Agency data, but as costs fall the tipping point after which costs fall faster gets nearer</p><p>"The opportunity has been created by Northeastern states seeing the large price declines for offshore wind in Europe," says Cohen. Onshore wind is historically the lowest cost renewable resource, but is at its most expensive in the Northeast, he adds. "But costs are falling slower than for other technologies," he says.</p>
Jobs and Coastal Revitalization<p>U.S. wind energy now supports 120,000 US jobs and 530 domestic factories. A study by the University of Delaware predicted that the supply chain needed to build offshore turbines to feed power to seven East Coast states by 2030 would generate nearly $70 billion in economic activity and at least 40,000 full-time jobs. An American Wind Energy Association's (AWEA's) March 2020 report estimated that developing 30,000 MW of offshore wind along the East Coast could support up to 83,000 jobs and $25 billion in annual economic output by 2030.</p><p>Having said that, not all of the jobs are American jobs. The offshore wind developers with commercial leases in the US are all foreign companies. There is growing interest from the shipbuilding sector in the Gulf of Mexico in partnering with offshore wind companies to provide services. As a result, some of the US oil trade associations have submitted comments supporting certain aspects of offshore wind. "However, it is unclear to what extent offshore wind developers plan to use US vessels and crew, and the existing projects did not incorporate US vessels or labor at all," Hawkins says.</p>
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