Is a global transition to 100% renewable energy realistic?

 

Is taking the world to 100% renewable energy feasible? Apparently so. Greenpeace International has developed a new methodology for describing the conditions under which the world’s energy systems can be transformed. They used the same basic modelling data as the International Energy Agency and developed a number of national, regional and global scenarios describing a pathway to 100% renewable energy. Interestingly it’s not just the electricity or power generation sector they’re talking about  – it’s the whole energy system including transportation and heating, two notoriously difficult sectors to decarbonise because of the lock-in effects of both behaviour and infrastructure. How did they do it? Well first of all they set out the 7 methodological steps in the transition logic:

  1. Define national (emission ceiling) limits
  2. Define RE resource limits
  3. Identify drivers for demand
  4. Macroeconomic data
  5. Timelines and targets
  6. Infrastructure required
  7. Policies required

The process might be described as backcasting – setting a time-bound goal or target for a certain date, and then defining the policies and measures that are needed to achieve the targets by that date. Traditionally energy policy has been set using ‘predict and provide’ models relying on fossil fuels to meet rising demand. Even with renewable energies added to the power generation system under a baseload ‘plus extras’ model, the energy system has not had to change much.  However, Greenpeace point out that to get from 80% to 100% renewables is a much more ambitious goal than getting from 25% to 80%, requiring system change including the total electrification of the energy system, Demand-Side Management (DSM) and system storage. Interestingly, their models show that both investment and system costs decline markedly over time, and if countries pursue this pathway, in 50 years they can reach 100% without stranded assets.

How can nation states go about this? Well the role of the IEA is to help countries plan their energy systems, and the Greenpeace and World Future Council representatives pointed out that countries need to ask the IEA for help in re-designing their energy systems and RE pathways. To date, no country has approached the IEA for assistance in going 100% renewable, and the IEA representative at this side event seemed distinctly sceptical about whether it was even possible. Sweden has a plan for reaching 100% decarbonisation of its power generation sector by 2040 and plans to be net-carbon free on the whole by 2045. The Swedish representative acknowledged the need for societal mobilisation, cross-party parliamentary consensus on this objective and a strong emphasis on innovation to support high-energy consuming industrial sectors.

Sadhbh O Neill UNFCCC COP22 Marrakech, 14th November

 

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