Global Wind Energy Insight: A 100 Percent Renewable Energy Future

Ever since the oil shocks of the 1970s, there has been speculation about what it would take to completely wean ourselves from fossil fuels.

Not even the most enthusiastic advocates of renewables back then (and I’m one of them) could have imagined the spectacular growth of wind and solar we see today. The opposition is getting shriller and weaker with each passing encounter, as the future for both nuclear and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) gets bleaker by the day.

100 percent renewable energy (RE) is inevitable, simply because everything else is not (renewable). The relevant question is whether we can do it quickly enough to save the climate, and whether we meet our climate goals with 100 percent RE or with a combination of RE and other ‘zero-emitting’ technologies, should they emerge.

A large portion of the energy establishment believes it is ‘not possible’ to go to 100 percent RE, and continue to argue for nuclear, CCS and/or gas. While gas needs to play a role in the transition in the next few decades, gas is fundamentally incompatible with a 2 degrees Celsius world. Nuclear and CCS are dying in the marketplace.

But therein lies the challenge: to show/convince not only the energy establishment, but policy makers and the general public both that a 100 percent renewable energy future is possible, and that it is the quickest, cheapest and cleanest way to achieve our climate goals and ensure a livable planet for future generations. We are winning the battle on the technology and the economics, but there are still very powerful vested interests who actively mislead policy makers and the public.

The recent paper in Nature showing how the 1.5 degrees Celsius target is still geophysically possible, and its predictable and deliberate misinterpretation by the usual suspects, adds some urgency to the discussion. It outlines perhaps the most important and most overlooked question in this whole debate: time, and how little we have.

Ever since the Paris Agreement was concluded almost two years ago, it’s been clear that any credible scenario that gets us close to either the 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius target will require complete decarbonization of the power sector at the very least, (well) before 2050. The logical consequence of that is of course that any decision to build a fossil fuel power plant today will mean either that it will become a stranded asset or we will not meet our climate targets.

Given the dramatic cost reductions in wind and solar over the last few years, the electrification of just about everything that can be electrified is becoming more and more accepted as the way to go. Electric cars, which just a few years ago were considered decades away from broad uptake, will, according to the Economist (Oct. 21), be cheaper than fossil-fuel powered vehicles by…2018! They are being legislated into the mainstream in a number of jurisdictions, and not just in northern Europe, but in China, and soon. As wind and solar deployments continue to accelerate and prices continue to go down, electrification will spread rapidly to other sectors, with the kind of disruptive change that e-mobility is causing today.

One of the conceptual problems we have is that mainstream energy modelers cling to the notion of “primary energy.” Nobody wants primary energy; they want electricity, heat, cooling and mobility. Transformation of road transit to electric would remove halve the demand for oil, and replace it with about 20 percent of the equivalent in electric power, in primary energy terms. It is the same with removing coal and gas from the power sector, which are between 35 percent and 50 percent efficient, in terms of their primary energy inputs. The classic absurdity of this approach is that nuclear still shows up as providing nearly twice as much ‘primary energy’ as hydro, which is a total nonsense given hydro produces nearly twice as much electricity today. The waste of 50 percent or more of the energy we consume up front is NOT something that should be “rewarded,” but measured only with a view to getting rid of it.

If we get off the fixation on primary energy and focus on what is actually required by end users, then two things happen: the situation looks much more do-able for 100 percent RE; and we can focus on the big areas where we really don’t have all the answers (yet): steel, cement, airplanes and ships. There are fixes for not using coking coal for steel production; and cement manufacturing processes that don’t release the calcium carbonate as CO2 — but they’re still experimental and should be the subject of massive, targeted R&D. The same is true for airplanes and ships: electrical options and those using biofuels and/or some form of hydrogen, perhaps with ammonia as a carrier. But again, they need a lot of work.

If we have the power, heating and cooling and much of the transport sector “under control,” then a real focus on the problem areas would, I believe, rapidly yield positive results.

So, to address the three criteria listed above:

  • Is RE the quickest way to achieve change? I don’t think we have any argument there. Relative speed of deployment has always been one of our strongest arguments, for both wind and solar. The notoriously conservative International Energy Agency projects that wind and solar deployment in the next five years will equal half the coal deployed in the last 80 years.
  • Is RE the cheapest way to achieve change? For electricity, that question has now been answered. For the rest, it’s not quite so simple.
  • Is RE the cleanest way to achieve change? Heavy metals in batteries, rare-earth metals (which aren’t rare) and bird strikes notwithstanding, I don’t think there’s any serious argument here when compared with the alternatives — climate change, and the fouling of our air, land and water which is the plague of modern industrialized civilization.

To close, we CAN still solve the climate problem in time to prevent the total disruption of human civilization. History would indicate that we are unlikely to do so because of political inertia and the large vested interests in the status quo.

The time has come to accelerate the global energy transition towards 100 percent renewables, as the quickest, cheapest and cleanest way to meet our climate protection goals, not to mention cleaning up our air and water. More than 100 of the world’s largest companies have already placed their bets on a truly clean energy future. Hopefully governments will catch up before it is too late.

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Steve Sawyer joined the Global Wind Energy Council as its first Secretary General in April 2007. The Global Wind Energy Council represents the major wind energy associations (China, India, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Canada, USA, Europe, France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Korea, South Africa and Turkey) as well as the major companies involved in the global wind industry. At GWEC he is focussed on working with intergovernmental organisations such as the UNFCCC, IPCC, IRENA, IEA, IFC and ADB to ensure that wind power takes its rightful place in the energy options for the future; and with opening up new markets for the industry in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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