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Pathways to 100 Percent Renewable Energy

Reaching the goal of getting 100 percent of the world's energy from renewable resources is technically and economically feasible today. The challenges lie in the realms of public policy and political will, as well as in finance, market development, and business development.

That was the message delivered by numerous distinguished energy experts in San Francisco on April 16th at Pathways to 100 Percent Renewable Energy, the first international conference specifically focused on accelerating the transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

Citing a number of recent authoritative energy studies, Dr. Dave Renne, President of the International Solar Energy Society said all the studies agree that there are no technical barriers to getting 100 percent of our energy from renewable resources. Their technical potential, he said, “far exceeds even our wildest future (demand) projections.”

Some renewable technologies in themselves are sufficient to supply 100 percent of the world’s energy demand by themselves, though of course this would not be an optimal global energy solution. Professor Alexa Lutzenberger from the University of Leuphana, Germany noted that the world could meet 100 percent of its energy needs just from biomass fuels and biogas.

This versatile fuel can be used to produce power, or power and heat in a combined heat and power plant.  It can also be used to produce biodiesel or other fuels, such as biomethane and bioethanol. When cleaned, biogas can utilize the world’s vast natural gas pipeline infrastructure.

Germany now has some 8,000 mostly small agricultural biogas plants which afford farmers the opportunity to become energy independent and enjoy relatively stable, reasonably priced energy.

100 Percent Renewables Possible for the Planet

Marc Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering discussed his landmark 2009 feasibility study for completely powering the planet with “wind, water, and solar (WWS).”

Jacobson said that 2.5-3 million people die prematurely from fossil fuel air pollution worldwide each year and that cumulativly, 100 million people have perished from air pollution over the past 100 years.

Referring to climate change, growing global population, rising energy demand, and air pollution, Jacobson said, “These are drastic problems, and they require drastic solutions.”

He found that by producing 100 percent of the planet’s energy from a mix of wind, concentrating solar, geothermal, tidal power, photovoltaics, wave power, and hydroelectricity, air pollution deaths would be eliminated along with the emission of climate-disturbing greenhouse gases generated from fossil fuels.

Global energy use would also decline sharply.  Just by replacing the fuels in the global energy mix with electricity, Jacobson found that total energy demand would decline 32 percent by 2030, even without accounting for energy efficiency measures that would also be adopted.

In the U.S., the study found that a similar shift to electricity and electrolytic hydrogen would cut primary energy demand by 37 percent, also before other efficiency measures. The switch would reduce California’s energy demand by 44 percent, largely as a result of converting the transportation sector to more efficient electric propulsion. 

Jacobson did not recommend nuclear power, coal with carbon capture, natural gas, or biofuels that involve combustion and may release air pollutants and carbon dioxide. 

Under the plan’s assumptions, electricity costs would fall compared with fossil fuel power and more new jobs would be created than lost in the energy transition. Global energy security and price stability would both be vastly enhanced and the renewable facilities needed would require only 0.4% of the world’s land.

New York

Jacobson also reported on a new Stanford University study he led recently which contends that it would be technically and economically feasible for New York State to get all its energy from renewable sources by 2030. RenewableEnergyWorld.com reported on that study here and there is an active discussion following the article. Jacobson said that, if implemented successfully, the plan would save money, energy, and create jobs while reducing the health impacts and costs of air pollution in New York.

Renewables in California

Also at the conference, Stephen Berberich, President and CEO of the California Independent System Operator Corp. said that today’s power industry won’t be recognizable by 2050. The vast majority of the state’s energy demand will by then be met by renewable energy, and the utility industry will be completely transformed.

Many homes will be effectively off the grid, doing their own generation, and using their own energy storage systems.  Berberich expects that the largest power consuming sector in the California economy in 2050 will likely be the state’s transportation fleet, which by then will be electrified to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Berberich said that the move to renewables will be driven by economic imperatives, the development of new technology, and concern over climate change. “The costs of distributed technologies are falling dramatically.”

Berberich himself said he pays about 35 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity at his home in the PG&E service territory but that he can get a solar array for 20 cents a kilowatt-hour. “Why wouldn’t I do that?” he asked.

Customers in the future will enjoy transparent pricing and, with the help of online applications and advanced networking devices, “will be able to see, shape, and control their energy usage,” he said. 

During the transition to a renewable energy powered economy, Berberich cautioned that ramping renewables up too quickly could drive costs up and provoke a backlash. “If a rate bomb goes off, there’s going to be a hue and cry,” he warned.  Likewise, problems with system reliability would also undermine progress toward 100 percent renewable energy.

Dr. Eric Martinot, senior research director at the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies provided the conference with a summary of the Renewables Global Futures Report produced by REN21, a global, multi-stakeholder network of experts from many sectors of society, seeking to accelerate the global transition to renewable energy.

Based on the opinions of 170 leading experts and 50 energy scenarios, the report forecasts rapid increases in global investment in renewable energy supply, accompanied by continued declines in cost and advances in technology. Global investment in renewable energy was $260 billion in 2011 and, according to the report, may reach $400-500 billion by 2020.

While recognizing that challenges remain in integrating renewable energy into utility power grids, buildings, transport, and industries, the report concludes that the primary challenges, “relate to practices, policies, institutions, business models, finance,” and other factors.

The report takes note of a growing number of regions, cities, towns, and communities that are planning to eventually become 100 percent reliant on renewable energy. Rather than expecting renewables just to fit within modestly restructured existing energy systems, it envisions the co-evolution of renewable technologies over time into profoundly transformed new energy systems.

More information about the Pathways to 100 Percent Renewable Energy conference and its sponsor, the Renewables 100 Policy Institute, can be found at www.go100percent.org.  Organizers are planning to post videos of the conference on the website in the near future.

Lead image: Dirty vs clean energy via Shutterstock

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