Will the Children of Today Be Living in a World Powered by Renewable Energy by 2050?

The world needs a one-off switch-over to renewable energy — and this could be largely accomplished in just forty years time, slashing energy costs and greenhouse gases while allowing healthy economic growth, experts say.

By 2050, 80 percent of the world’s electricity could be coming from renewable energy sources provided efforts are made, in parallel, to improve energy efficiency, according to a study by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). That means, the children of today might well grow up to experience a world where the energy they use comes almost entirely from the sun, wind, sea and biomass.

By 2090, the shift to renewable energy around the world could be almost 99 percent completed reducing pressure on the environment and laying the foundations for a new era of prosperity based on green energy.

Also, the short-term financial costs of switching over to renewable energy will be outweighed by the long-term financial benefits, according to the study. In fact, the projected savings to be made by not using the amount of coal we do today could amount to US $15.9 trillion by 2030 alone — a sum that would pay the whole US $15 trillion bill needed to switch over the entire world to renewable energy power sources once and for all.

The accumulated savings of a switch-over to renewable energy by 2030 could be as high as US $18.7 trillion or $750 billion a year, according to one DLR scenario.

The DLR estimates that the world today spends approximately US $2 trillion on its electricity supply, which comes primarily from fossil fuels. However, it calculates that this cost could rise to almost US $9 trillion by 2050 on current trends of soaring oil and coal prices as well as the rising cost of dealing with the environmental impact of carbon emissions. However, if the world largely completes its switch over to renewable energy by 2050 and introduces energy saving measures in parallel, the bill for the annual electricity supply will only be about US $4 trillion a year — a savings of $5 trillion.

Consumers could also be faced with more affordable or even no energy bills once installation costs for renewable energy micro-generators and weatherization have been met, ushering in a new era of energy self sufficiency for householders.

The goal of obtaining 80 percent of our electricity from renewables is achievable even if the world, including China and India, continues to see high economic growth, says the DLR.

The Energy [R]evolution Report commissioned by Greenpeace International and the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) also outlines a scenario that would see a fairer redistribution of the burden of cutting greenhouses around the globe. Under the DLR plan, America and Western Europe would decrease their high per capita energy use by switching over to renewable energy and introducing energy saving measures as soon as possible while countries such as China and India would initially slow down their increase in energy demand before starting the switch-over to green energy.

This would bring the western industrialized and the non-western countries closer together in terms of the amount of energy they consume by 2050, although even using this “scissors” approach North America and Western Europe will still be using far more energy per capita than India or China in 40 years time.

The DLR study has also put forward an action plan that would see 32.5 percent of the world’s electricity supply coming from renewable energy by as early as 2020. Until 2020, the current spectrum of renewable technologies such as wind power, hydro power and biomass are expected to play a key role. After 2020, by contrast, new technologies generating abundant and low cost clean energy are expected to become available and to play an increasingly important part in the world’s green tech mix.

Technologies like dye-sensitive solar cells and thin-film photovoltaics are being developed rapidly and present a huge potential for cost reduction. Also, major innovations in geothermal and ocean wave technology can be expected as research in these areas increases in the future.

The DLR study says that there has to be a drastic reduction in primary energy demand for the world to switch to largely renewables by 2050. The introduction of a raft of energy saving measures will ensure that there is only a slight increase in the total primary energy demand from the 474,900 petajoules [roughly 30 million kilowatt-hours], in 2005 to 480,860 petajoules in 2050, compared to 867,700 petajoules In 2050 without such energy efficiency measures.

“Smart power” will improve the efficiency of buildings and transport, and the DLR predicts that the city centers of the future, for example, could be producing power and heat as well as consuming it. The buildings will have photovoltaic facades not only for energy production but also as an element of architectural design. Solar thermal collectors are set to produce hot water in the networked cities of tomorrow where energy comes from a variety of sources, large and small in scale.

In addition, the DLR predicts that the energy supply system of the future will move from the large and centralized one of today’s world towards a much more decentralized one, based on a wide mix of energy sources. These will be tailored to the geography of a particular region to optimize its specific and unique potential.

According to the DLR, solar photovoltaics, followed by wind power, concentrated solar power and geothermal, have the highest potential for development from technologies currently available.

To study notes huge amounts of energy currently wasted from cooling towers could be harnessed for co-generation.

A further piece in the puzzle to create a world powered by renewable energy is to make the transport sector more efficient by switching over to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy sources and also by building up public transport system.

Government legislation will have a vital role to play in facilitating the energy revolution according to the DLR. It recommends that governments phase out subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy; put a cost on carbon emissions and so take into account their damage to the environment. Also, governments should introduce strict energy efficiency standards and legally binding targets for renewable energy as well as increase the budgets for research into renewable energy and energy saving measures.

If all goes according to plan, the DLR predicts that by 2050, around 77% of electricity will be produced from renewable energy sources and a capacity of 9,100 GW will produce 28,600 TWh/a of renewable electricity in 2050. In the heat supply sector, the contribution of renewables such as biomass, solar collectors and geothermal will increase to 70% by 2050.

The study estimates that 56% of primary energy demand will be covered by renewable energy sources by 2050 when energy efficiency potentials will have been largely exploited. As a result, primary energy demand will stabilize at 2060 levels. The proportion of renewables to cover this primary energy demain will continue to rise.

By 2070 over 93% of electricity will be produced from renewable energy sources, with whatever gas-fired power plants remaining in use serving as a backup for power.  By 2080, about 90% of primary energy demand will be covered by renewable energy sources and by 2090 the renewable share will reach 98.2%. By 2100, a capacity of 23,100 GW will produce 56,800 TWh of renewable electricity or 17 times more than today.

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