Renewable energy is the future, sure—but how much of the future could it possibly be? And how soon will that future, the one lined with towering wind turbines and studded with silicon solar arrays, arrive? Those are the big questions now; everyone and their mother is already sold on the idea of sustainable power. The prospect of securing clean alternatives to old dirty-burning coal and geopolitical time bomb oil is clearly a popular one, embraced from China to Europe to the U.S. to Latin America.
But beyond that vague affirmation of support, our conception of clean power’s role in the world tends to taper off into abstraction. There’s a pervasive sense that renewable energy is not yet ready for the prime time; that more research is needed to make renewables competitive, that they’re still too expensive to scale up en masse. That they’re less reliable than the fossil fuel stalwarts that have been running our cars and powering our factories and dirtying our skies for over a century now. We see renewable energy as a mirage-like formation still slowly taking shape on the horizon.
Next to nobody really believes that the renewable energy technologies that exist today could power the entire global economy. But they should, because they can. They cannot do it alone—we also need to drastically upgrade the energy efficiency of our buildings and cars, better reuse more of our materials, and improve our power grids the world over. But, indeed, a detailed new study outlines how the world can get nearly all of its energy from sustainable sources in less than 40 years.
The report, “Transition to a fully sustainable global energy system,” was recently published in the journal Energy Strategy Reviews. It concludes that:
A fully renewable global energy system is possible: we can reach a 95% sustainably sourced energy supply by 2050. To achieve such a bold goal we need to combine aggressive energy efficiency on the demand side with accelerated renewable energy supply from all possible sources. This requires a paradigm shift towards long-term, integrated strategies and will not be met with small, incremental changes.
Translation: It is entirely possible, using technologies largely available today, to power nearly the entire world with clean energy—but we need to conjure the will to make revolutionary strides in public policy and the scale of deployment.
One of the lead authors is Kornelis Blok, the experimental physicist and renewable energy expert who helped mobilize the Netherlands’ clean energy strategy. The roadmap he helped forge closely resembles a handful of other bold but largely ignored studies, including one from Stanford researchers and another from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, both of which assert that it is entirely possible to run the world largely on renewables within 20-40 years. Each argues that with strong incentives to develop clean energy (tax breaks, government-mandated standards), paired with policies that discourage carbon pollution (cap and trade, carbon taxes) and encourage a keen focus on efficiency, a renewably powered world is within our grasp.
This latest report is unique in that it breaks down the various sectors and the nature of the power they demand. We’re talking industry, transport, and buildings. Check it out and you’ll get an idea of how the researchers propose we begin replacing conventional fuels with renewable ones:
Out goes oil, in comes biofuels. We’ll use more “local solar,” or stuff like rooftop solar water heaters, to keep our showers warm. We’ll use less coal, and more wind farms. The detail is pretty meticulous here, the amount of data weighed formidable. For example, the authors are betting that the energy it takes to produce stuff like steel and paper in the developed world will decrease, as the supply of reclaimable materials grows. Meanwhile, they presume that the pollution generated by the same sector in developing nations will continue to rise.
The emphasis here is on efficiency—energy efficient buildings, efficient lightweight cars, and efficient power grids. Special attention is given to making sure we erect super-efficient buildings and retrofit the ones we’ve got, which are rich nations’ top energy wasters. It all comes down to a simple equation: If we want to be able to run all of our stuff on renewables, we’ve got to scale back demand. Big time.
In the transport sector, efficiency, electrification, and biofuels are the names of the game—more electric cars, more electrified high speed rail, and planes running much less frequently and with a mix of biofuels. In the future, the researchers posit, business air travel will decline, phased out by video teleconferencing and high-speed passenger rail.
Meanwhile, we double down on every promising renewable technology we’ve got. Not just solar panels, but concentrated solar—you know, those giant mirrored fields in the desert that focus an ultra-intense beam of sunlight on a giant turbine in a tower. And not just wind turbines in our fields and meadows, but offshore wind farms, in places like the North Sea and along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.
Now this is what an “all-of-the-above energy strategy” looks like (sorry GOP, Obama):
Notice that nuclear power isn’t among those scaled-up. These are renewables to the bone, powering our world cleanly and irradiating no one. Looks pretty good, right? If such a world were to come to pass, the benefits would be immeasurable—cleaner skies the world over, declining rates of asthma and respiratory sickness, no more mountaintop removal coal mining, exponentially fewer oil spills, and, of course, a crippling blow to the advance of global climate change. Good, renewable power. Good jobs. Now, it should be noted that the researchers have made some pretty bold assumptions in their calculations, from the amount of ‘net zero’ housing humankind will build to the number of flights we’ll will be willing to cancel to the amount of oil we’ll be able to replace with biofuels. They’re certainly looking through rose-colored glasses on plenty of occasions throughout, but that’s kind of the point—this whole plan really rests on one massive super-rosy assumption, after all: that human society is willing to mobilize to make such an ambitious and rapid transition.
That said, it’s a moonshot away, but it’s still possible. In fact, for a primer on just how massive a task getting all of the above underway truly is, Saul Griffith would be happy to tell you.
Again—possible. But it will be a hell of a ride, if we ever manage to even get on the horse.
It is the dream of every clean energy advocate that the world come to understand that the barriers lie not with technology, but beyond two much deeper moats: a lack of political will and the organized opposition from the powerful fossil fuel companies whose lifeblood it shall displace. Exxon, for example is the richest private corporation in the world, and when the US government was considering a raft of policies that would have discouraged the use of carbon-rich fuels like oil, it spent more money lobbying Congress than the entire American clean energy industry combined. Oil and coal companies have been fighting tooth and nail to oppose the policies that might make the path outlined above possible, and, especially in the U.S., where they hold the most sway, their vision is winning out.
And it’s that dreary vision that stands before us today, the one awash in more oil, more gas, more coal. More holes in the ground, near our watersheds, off our coastlines, into the pristine Arctic. The vision shaped by our nation’s chief political interests; the one that leads Mitt Romney to call for more coal in the middle of the warmest year on the American record books. It’s a dystopian vision, really, when taken to its logical conclusion. A world pocked by toxic spills and noxious pollutants and rusting power plants, powered by technologies that have scarcely been updated since the industrial revolution.
It’s about time we took serious stock of the possible futures that lie before us. One of those futures burns clean; the other beats us back filthily into the past.