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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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
Time for Action<p>I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.</p><p>Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/scientific-integrity-policies-update" target="_blank">Obama administration</a> would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.</p><p>I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.</p><p>We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.</p>
By Andrea Germanos
Environmental campaigners stressed the need for the incoming Biden White House to put in place permanent protections for Alaska's Bristol Bay after the Trump administration on Wednesday denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine that threatened "lasting harm to this phenomenally productive ecosystem" and death to the area's Indigenous culture.
<div id="da98c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="478a197b7c59c92787c92bec92f1ac39"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1331662923710693376" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Bristol Bay forever, Pebble mine never. #NoPebbleMine #SaveBristolBay https://t.co/CBQ9zuy8A5</div> — Save Bristol Bay (@Save Bristol Bay)<a href="https://twitter.com/SaveBristolBay/statuses/1331662923710693376">1606328156.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.