There is no turning back when it comes to the use of renewable energy. There is an urgency to accelerate the use of wind, solar, and other technologies, and to limit the use of fossil fuels. Scientists recently analyzed publicly available data from the International Energy Agency about 139 countries and came to the bold conclusion that all these countries could be using 100% renewable energy by 2050. Currently, these countries collectively contribute 99% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.
Boeing’s South Carolina plant sources 100% of its energy requirements from renewable energy. Other big name companies which are major customers of renewable power include General Motors and Walmart.
With current financial, economic, and technological trends, this could mean that it is possible to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement. The Paris Climate Accord, signed in 2016, laid down guidelines where each country would determine, plan, and regularly report their own contribution in fighting global warming. The main number to consider is to limit the increase in world temperature to 1.5% above pre-industrial levels.
Unlike other world agreements, the Paris Accord serves as a baseline for the goals, and leaves the implementation to the signatory countries. It is an avenue for divesting from the use of fossil fuels. One of the main features of the agreement is the implementation of “nationally determined contributions” which are required to be “ambitious” and require an improvement over time. This means that the goals for each country are updated according to new technologies and developments as time passes.
The multi-nation study was based on current trends, and did not take into account each country’s goals in meeting the Paris Accord. A 100% usage of renewable energy would have a large effect on the world economy.
Renewable energy includes solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal energies, along with up and coming technologies like tidal and wave powers. With the above findings, it would mean that coal, oil, and nuclear sources would be contributing a minimal amount of power to the world’s energy supply.
This new study itself is an offshoot of an earlier study which took a look at the energy usage of the United States. The original 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on the future of renewable energy in the country drew criticism because it did not take into account the supply-demand grid balancing, nor the politics and economics of monopolistic companies.
The recent worldwide study by Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark Delucchi, and their 25 colleagues included an intermediate estimate where scientists believed these same countries could be generating up to 80% of their power needs from renewable sources by 2030. The group of researchers created a roadmap which showed the potential outcomes of current efforts;
- Onshore Wind, 23.52%
- Photovoltaic Solar Plants, 21.36%
- Residential Rooftop Solar, 14.89%
- Offshore Wind, 13.62%
- Government Rooftop Solar, 11.58%
- Concentrated Solar Plants, 9.72%
- Hydroelectric Energy, 4%
- Geothermal Energy, 0.67%
- Wave Energy, 0.58%
- Tidal Energy, 0.06%
One offshoot of the previous scenario is that with the above figures, the cost of production is only one fourth of the comparable cost for energy production from fossil fuel plants. In addition, there is an expected 27 million jobs that may be lost due to the shift to renewable energy, but at the same time there may also be a demand for 50 million new jobs in the renewable energy sector.Although some countries currently have plans to implement new nuclear power plants well into the 2030s, the study did not take this into account. The researchers dismissed the figures for energy from nuclear power plants due to their high cost, nuclear waste, possibility of a meltdown, and the danger of nuclear arms proliferation.
U.S. in Terms of Renewable Energy?
The U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Accord, but it hasn’t abandoned renewable energy. Communities are turning towards renewables at a very fast pace.
The share of renewable energy production in some states indicates that this is a permanent trend. For instance, Iowa now produces more than a third of its electricity from wind farms, leading the United States in percentage use. South Dakota’s combined water and wind electricity production is around 70%. In ten years, from 2005 to 2015, Kansas grew its wind energy capacity to about a quarter of its total energy production.
It is important to note that these are not just community-based initiatives, as large enterprises are also turning to renewables. Boeing’s South Carolina plant sources 100% of its energy requirements from renewable energy. Other big name companies which are major customers of renewable power include General Motors and Walmart.
In the sunny city of Las Vegas, Nevada, hotels and casinos are increasingly becoming more dependent on renewable energy. A lot of the big hotels there now have solar panel arrays on their roofs. The details of that implementation is harder to understand, as the existing state-backed power generating monopoly has been charging companies and households to deter them from going off-grid.
What is happening in Nevada can also happen in other states as the confluence of technologies and economics will determine when renewable energy will finally replace fossil fuels.
New Technologies as a Stop-Gap Measure
Power company monopolies would be fighting for their existence as their customers try to cut costs by using new technologies. The economics of energy generation can be very complicated, with the mix of private corporation renewable sources on their site, oil and natural gas prices, hydropower generation, and other factors.
The Nevada utility company, in essence, penalizes companies and households which generate their own power. The penalties go to subsidizing other entities which depend wholly on the power company for their electricity. The idea is that with decreased demand, the electric company would be forced to hike prices on the remaining customers in order to continue operating at a profit.
These factors which affect how energy is generated, the cost of energy, and how much it is sold to consumers, were not included in the 2017 worldwide study. The researchers, however, took into account that countries with a large land area would be in a better position to put up renewable energy plants. For smaller countries, they would be dependent on the energy generating capacity of their neighbors, or they would have to generate power off shore.
Another factor which was included in the study is the estimated drop in prices of energy generation for renewables. At present, electricity from solar energy is still generated at a higher cost. This, however, is expected to decrease over time and should be much less than electricity from coal and oil powered plants by 2030.
There are many bold ideas which can be explored and utilized as a means to an end. The use of batteries, which is beginning to come online, is one of many technologies that can make the 2050 scenario happen. With batteries, energy can be stored during peak production hours, and then drawn from during the off-peak hours. For solar energy plants, more electricity can be produced during the day, and then the batteries will take over after dark.
As mentioned above, there are many avenues which can be tried and tested before a viable solution can be attained. It’s something that must be done not only with urgency but with a firm commitment to seeing it through completion. Bold ideas will not amount to anything 20 years down the road if they were never acted upon so they may turn into something tangible and useful.