Can the world be powered With 100 percent renewable energy by 2050?

New research says yes!

Renewable Energy Life Cycle: Cleaner and Cheaper

Results of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  (PNAS) presents a life cycle assessment (LCA) on an array of electricity generation sources, from fossil fuels to solar power.  The conclusions indicate that renewable energy is cheaper, less environmentally damaging, and has more potential for growth in the next few decades than any conventional electricity generation source. Renewable energy can even power our entire grid by 2050 if we use our resources wisely.

The study is being hailed as the first ever global-scale LCA of a mix of renewable energy sources. Until now, studies have focused on one energy source at a time in LCAs, if they have been done at all.

A life cycle assessment is a method of study used to estimate the environmental impact caused by all stages of the life of a product, or in this case, energy source, from production to end-use. Finally, we have a better idea of how exactly renewable energy integration will affect our environment, electric grid, and energy bills. Surprisingly, we’ve never studied several renewable resources at once to find an answer. This data gives us solid evidence that renewable energy is fully capable of powering our grid and reducing pollution. The authors conclude, “Our analysis indicates that the large-scale implementation of wind, PV [photovoltaic], and CSP [concentrated solar power] has the potential to reduce pollution-related environmental impacts of electricity production, such as GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions…”

Green energy does come with some environmental impacts, which is why this LCA is so valuable.  For the first time, we have information that presents the combined environmental costs of materials, land, manufacturing, and related emissions in one analysis.  The raw materials required to manufacture renewable energy generation is not insignificant, but the authors find that materials, emissions, and pollution of renewable energy pale in comparison to the alternative,

The pollution caused by higher material requirements of [renewable] technologies is small compared with the direct emissions of fossil fuel-fired power plants.

In terms of materials required, the study estimates that,only two years of current global copper and one year of iron production will suffice to build a low-carbon energy system capable of supplying the world’s electricity needs in 2050.”

Demand Response for Renewable Energy

Renewable resources are intermittent in their ability to generate energy; that is always the main argument heard from opponents of wind and solar. The sun does not always shine and wind does not always blow. So, what will happen when a shortage of available power occurs?

Maybe the same thing that happens today: utilities and system operators can trigger a demand response event.

If renewable energy can supply 100% of the world’s power by 2050, as the PNAS study claims, then demand response (DR) will be the best carbon-free asset we will have to keep power stable.

Demand response events are typically triggered during extreme heat waves because energy use spikes (mostly for air conditioning) and stresses the electric grid. But, what if we had DR events on cloudy days instead?   Weather radars can predict the extreme overcast conditions that cause solar panels to generate less power.  Wind power output could be similarly predicted since air pressure and changes in cold and warm front weather patterns are already monitored.  Currently, demand response events can be forecast for days when extreme weather conditions are predicted. I don’t see why the same can’t be done for solar and wind power. Triggers for DR events would simply change in accordance with sustainable electricity generation patterns. This process wouldn’t be much more disruptive to the power grid than it is today, especially when you consider the fact that cloudy days are usually pretty windy.

Demand response will get a technology upgrade too; by 2050, we’ll have better storage technology than we do now. Batteries can store any excess power generated by renewable energy systems. Such technology is already being developed; it won’t be long before it’s up and running.  This means even more grid stability. Batteries can replace generators for DR participants. Instead of firing up a diesel generator as backup power, facilities could switch over to batteries that store excess energy from on-site solar panels or windmills.

Climate Change is Killer

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), without efforts to stop pollution, CO2 emissions from the energy sector will roughly double by 2050. Considering that the earth is already showing effects of climate change, that statistic is chilling. In a 2010 report, the IEA published a graph estimating the CO2 emissions poured into the atmosphere by 2050 if we do nothing (baseline scenario), versus the lesser amount if we act to stop carbon pollution (BLUE Map):

CO2 Emissions

Graph depicting the CO2 emissions of the IEA’s estimated BLUE Map and Baseline Scenarios Image credit: IEA Energy Technology Perspectives 2010

The baseline scenario will emit almost 60 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050. There’s no doubt that will wreak havoc on Earth’s climate and all aspects of human livelihood.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is vitally important, as we all already know. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us in its Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report that,

It is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over most land areas on daily and seasonal timescales, as global mean surface temperature increases. It is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and longer duration. Occasional cold winter extremes will continue to occur.

Virtually certain environmental disasters should be enough to motivate us all to make some changes in how we think about energy. It’s time to shake up the electric grid and stop pouring carbon into the atmosphere before we reach the point of no return.



Related Articles:

How to Cut the Carbon Footprint of Your Office
The Newest Demand Response Participant: Electric Vehicles
Energy Efficient States: Where Does Yours Rank?

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  • http://www.perelman.net/ Lewis J. Perelman

    First, the headline here is misleading. The article only addressed electric power generation.

    Second, the authors chose not to include nuclear power in their assessment.

    Moreover, the authors assume technical advances will reduce the cost of energy storage. It is not clear whether potential innovation in other kinds of energy technology were considered.

    Certainly not considered was the development of molten salt reactors, the thorium fuel cycle, and other innovations that promise to make nuclear power safer, cleaner, and less costly.

    Another key innovation the authors did not account for is in fusion power. Lockheed Martin recently announced that it expects to have a prototype of a new kind of compact fusion reactor within 5 to 10 years. An analysis from the U. of Washington indicates that CFRs would produce electricity more cheaply than coal-fired generators.

    Overall, the cited study has little credibility or usefulness.

    As for this statement: “IT IS VIRTUALLY CERTAIN THAT THERE WILL BE MORE FREQUENT HOT AND FEWER COLD TEMPERATURE EXTREMES OVER MOST LAND AREAS ON DAILY AND SEASONAL TIMESCALES, AS GLOBAL MEAN SURFACE TEMPERATURE INCREASES.” … This overlooks the fact that average global surface temperatures have not increased significantly in some 17 years. Also, record breaking cold weather in recent years has been linked, albeit tentatively, to changes in the polar vortex associated with global warming. Other research reports predict the polar vortex will shrink. This muddled science does not suggest virtual certainty.

    • Den

      ROTFL …….
      The popular fixation with only 17 years of AIR temperatures (and ONLY air temperatures) overlooks the 117 years of climate data that makes it clear that man-made greenhouse gases are raising AIR AND OCEAN temperatures, and that increased heat is driving the climate changes we are now seeing. In any other century, the last 17 years of alleged non-warming would be the cooling half of a multi-decadal climate cycle along the lines of the El Niño-La Niña cycle. But because of the enhanced greenhouse effect (from man-made greenhouse gases), we no longer seeing atmospheric cooling, only rapid and slow warming.

      Nuclear energy has been making big promises for >half a century now, and in spite of astronomical public subsidies, has yet to deliver electrical power that is both cheap & safe. Even if new tech can cut the cost of nuclear power by 1/2 in another decade or 2, the price of solar & wind is falling faster.

  • Jessica Kennedy

    Great comments!
    I think this study is pretty credible – the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is a well-respected academic journal.
    Lewis – I disagree with your argument that the past 17 year temperature trend invalidates climate change. On the geologic time-scale, 17 years is not even a microsecond, and Earth operates in geologic terms – not a time-scale even comparable to anything we humans can fathom in comparison to our short lives. This is why collected data is so important – historic data and large-scale trends indicate the earth’s surface temperature is warmer than it has been in over 100,000 years. Temperatures will fluctuate slightly from year to year, but the overall trend is very clear.

    As far as electric power generation and storage, I think putting more trust in storage and energy reduction is the way to go instead of hoping for better power generation through nuclear. Thorium seems like a nuclear dream-come-true, but that technology is in its infancy, and we know that nuclear reactors come with a lot of potential hazards.
    Grid-scale storage is a technology gaining more speed. Factories for storage batteries are popping up around the country and there are several installations in place with capacity of about 25GW (mostly pumped-hydro at this point – batteries are the fastest growing component, however).
    I think storage + DR for emergencies can eliminate our need for peaking generation as we transition to renewable power.

    I think Den is right on the mark with his critique of nuclear tech. It’s developing, but not quite as quickly, or reliably, as renewable & storage. Nuclear has a lot of potential and we should certainly include it in our generation mix, but generation using new fuels like thorium or fusion need to be thoroughly vetted first. I wouldn’t like to see another Fukushima or Chernobyl.
    Thanks for reading, and keep the comments coming!

  • Michael Mann

    Why was the source of over 60% of clean electric production in the USA totally ignored?

  • Brian Donovan

    ONLY solar, wind and renewable can power the world cleanly and forever.
    We can and probably will accomplish this in 15 to 20 years, not 35.
    Solar pv, and wind are available the cheapest with free distribute fuel forever. Back that up with hydro and synthetic fuel from wastes in the existing type reserve generators. Germany and Denmark prove this works. Add efficiny, co production of heat and electricity, and plug in eletric cars with vehicle to grid and you have a complete 24/7 energy system, not just electric.

    Solar pv is doubling ever 2 years or so, and thus can provide more energy than the world energy in just 15 year or so. Solar and wind are now available cheaper than fossils or nuclear. Not even including wars for fossils.

    Nuclear is short of fuels in just ten years, and cost 4 times solar and wind.

    Even coal isn’t competitive anymore and the reserves have been downgraded as much as 90%.

  • http://essay-writing-services-online.blogspot.com/ research paper services

    That would be a good thing for them to have especially if there country is abundant in electricity. Maybe there would be a lot of of inventions that can help them in producing more power and can give them good percentage to successfully attain their plans.