The Road to a 100% Clean-Powered Planet

The man who predicted the clean energy boom of the last ten years outlines how the world can transition to 100% clean power.

Earlier this year, the energy consulting firm Meister noted that, of all the forecasts made by government agencies, non-profits, and industry investors, the group that most correctly predicted the rapid rise of clean power was Greenpeace. Sven Teske, an energy campaigner with an engineering background, has been authoring its annual Energy Revolution survey since 2005. In the beginning, the report, which mines market research to predict clean energy industry trends, may have read to an outsider like an activists' wishful dreaming. Today, it mostly just looks correct.

Teske's latest study, the tenth, argues that clean energy technologies can meet all of the world's power demands by 2050. And, given his track record, perhaps we should take the conclusion seriously: The man who most accurately predicted today's clean power boom in 2005 is now saying we could see 100 percent clean energy by midcentury.

The takeaway is right there in its opening salvo: "100 percent renewable energy for all is achievable by 2050, and is the only way to ensure the world does not descend into catastrophic climate change." Scientists say that the best way to ensure we don't see mass destabilization is to limit global warming to 2˚Celsius, which means we can only burn 1,000 more gigatons of carbon before we tip the scales.

"We did a very detailed market analysis," Teske told me. "It is not just technically and economically possible to make the transition to 100 percent renewables within one generation, it is a must-do to save our climate."

There are two primary components of the latest report: a drawing down of coal, oil, and gas, and a buildup of renewable technologies. The survey proposes "a phase-out of fossil fuels starting with lignite (the most carbon intensive) by 2035, followed by coal (2045), then oil and then finally gas (2050)." Next, it examines which renewables can and will fill the gap.

Basically, the transition would look like this: Solar PV and onshore wind turbines continue to expand rapidly. Then, as coal is phased out, larger-scale clean power projects like offshore wind and concentrated solar power (CSP)—power plant-sized solar technology that focuses the sun's rays on a single generator to make steam—gain prominence, too. Finally, fuels such as hydrogen and biofuels are made with clean energy to replace oil and gas. The cost to switch to renewables by 2050 would, by Teske's estimation, be about $1 trillion a year—though he says we'd offset more than that in saved fuel costs and develop an important economic engine. According to the report, renewable power adoption at this scale would create a net 20 million jobs by 2030.

Energy Revolution, 2015

"In 2014, we found that 60 percent of all new power plant capacity was renewables, on a global level," Teske told me. "The majority was onshore wind and solar PV. Onshore wind is already the cheapest power generation technology in many places," he said. "And if you own a roof, you can probably afford solar."

He points to developments like the plunging cost of solar panels, the rising popularity of home PV systems, and Tesla's newly announced battery storage systems, and that we're on the cusp of seeing a home solar arms race that will propel the global industry. "Solar PV is far cheaper than diesel generators, so that creates a natural market," he added. The report also reminds us that while renewable energy subsidies are a common political scapegoat, fossil fuels receive roughly twice the amount, at $550 billion annually.

There are already a number of reputable studies that show we could replace fossil fuels almost entirely with renewable energy sources by midcentury, and the 100 percent clean energy goal has inspired Mark Ruffalo-led activist movements and longshot presidential campaigns. Teske's adds more firepower to the growing body of 100 percent clean power literature. Still, he's under no illusions that realizing the blueprint will be anything but a radical undertaking.

"If we could continue the growth of renewables as we have in the past 10 years, we are on the road to 50-60 percent anyway," Teske said. "I'm very confident that with the current dynamics of the market. But the last 20-30 will be very difficult. We have to be honest. Especially the transport sector."

Oil thirsty cars are on the rise, after all, as electric vehicle penetration has, until very recently, been slow. Heating is another rough patch, though efficient reuse systems like Tokyo's offer guidance. It's still uncertain whether some of the technologies, like CSP in particular, are economical, and while promising, are not as established as wind or conventional solar. And the biggest challenge won't be building enough new cleantech to keep the lights on, but growing enough social capital and political will to reduce emissions and get rid of the entrenched fossil fuel behemoths currently spewing planet-warming gases.

"The question is: How do we get rid of the existing infrastructure? And that's a social problem." Teske thinks the answer lies with pressuring the polluting corporations—he would like to see carbon-intensive companies pivot their business models altogether.

"The fossil fuel companies have a social responsibility to see the writing on the wall, and shift their business model towards renewables—and they have 15-20 years. Mining workers are not villains, they're victims. Fighting this change is not the right strategy. I think these companies could do this. Some would have to change from a resource company to a technology company," he said, and not all will survive, but if they wanted to, "they could do it." Of course, these companies have seen the writing on the wall for years, and have done anything but—overriding their political power will be a huge undertaking to say the least. And 90 percent of the world's coal plant development takes place in China, which would need to begin this transition asap, too.

But there's another sign that the global energy revolution is already well underway, Teske says, and that's because he's "getting requests from developing countries—countries with no political ideology behind electricity generation," he said. Industrialized countries have "a long history of politicized technology choices. Developing countries are neutral, they just want electricity, and they don't care where it comes from—they just want affordable power." These days, that often means rooftop solar, and they're spreading fast.

But it will take a whole host of technologies, from hydrogen fuel cells to offshore wind turbines—to efficient heat systems and biofueled vehicles—to hit 100 percent. The bulk of that technology is more or less ready, if we are; a clean-powered planet would be a monumental engineering and political task, but it's not impossible. It's not a dream.

"The greens have long been accused of being against technology," Teske said, "but now we're far ahead."