Renewables Could Supply Majority of World’s Energy by 2050

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, May 10, 2011 (ENS) – Renewable sources of energy could meet 77 percent of the world’s energy supply by mid-century if backed by enabling public policies, finds a new report endorsed by the member countries of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By contrast, renewables met 13 percent of the world’s total primary energy supply in 2008.

The rising adoption of renewable energies could lead to cumulative greenhouse gas savings equivalent to 220 to 560 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtC02eq) between 2010 and 2050, the report finds.

The upper end of the scenarios assessed – a one-third cut in greenhouse gas emissions from business-as-usual projections – could help keep concentrations of the heat-trapping gases at 450 parts per million.

This could contribute towards a goal of holding the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius – an aim recognized in the United Nations Climate Convention’s Cancun Agreements.

Abengoa Solar’s PS10 solar power tower in Spain concentrates sunlight from a field of heliostats. (Photo by afloresm)

“The IPCC brought together the most relevant and best available information to provide the world with this scientific assessment of the potential of renewable energy sources to mitigate climate change,” said IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, introducing the report. “The Special Report can serve as a sound knowledge basis for policymakers to take on this major challenge of the 21st century.”

Approved by government representatives from 194 nations, the findings were released Monday as a summary for policymakers of the Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation.

The summary is a short version of the thousand-page comprehensive assessment compiled by over 120 experts from around the world for IPCC’s Working Group III. The full report is due out May 31, 2011.

Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist who serves as co-chair of Working Group III, said, “With consistent climate and energy policy support, renewable energy sources can contribute substantially to human well-being by sustainably supplying energy and stabilizing the climate.”

“However,” he cautioned, “the substantial increase of renewables is technically and politically very challenging.”

The researchers reviewed six renewable energy technologies:

  • Bioenergy, including energy crops; forest, agricultural and livestock residues and so called second generation biofuels
  • Direct solar energy including photovoltaics and concentrating solar power
  • Geothermal energy, based on heat extraction from the Earth’s interior
  • Hydropower, including run-of-river, in-stream or dam projects with reservoirs
  • Ocean energy, ranging from barrages to ocean currents and ones which harness temperature differences in the marine realm
  • Wind energy, including onshore and offshore systems

Over 160 existing scientific scenarios on the possible penetration of renewables by 2050, with environmental and social implications, were reviewed for the report.

A few of the 100 wind turbines on the world’s largest offshore wind farm, Vattenfall’s Thanet Offshore Wind Farm, off England’s southeast coast. (Photo by Nuon)

Four scenarios, chosen to represent the full range, were analyzed in-depth. Each of the scenarios takes into account variables such as changes in energy efficiency, population growth and per capita consumption.

The report concludes that renewables will take an increasing slice of the global energy market.

The most optimistic of the four in-depth scenarios projects renewable energy accounting for as much as 77 percent of the world’s energy demand by 2050.

The lowest of the four scenarios projects renewable energy taking a share of just 15 percent in 2050.

“What is unique about this assessment is that the IPCC allows us to draw on and bring together a broad spectrum of experts on each of the technologies reviewed in collaboration with scientists studying energy systems as a whole. It represents a systemic, broad, impartial and state of knowledge report on the present and future potential of a low carbon, more resource efficient energy path,” said Professor Edenhofer.

Renewables are already making up a substantial part of new electricity generating capacity added globally. Of the 300 gigawatts of new capacity added between 2008 and 2009, 140 GW came from renewable energies.

Piedmont Biofuels in North Carolina creates biodiesel out of three different feedstocks: used vegetable oil, soy oil, and poultry fat from local chicken farms. (Photo by Shawn Linehan)

Despite global financial challenges, renewable energy capacity grew in 2009, the report finds. Wind grew by over 30 percent; hydropower by three percent; grid-connected photovoltaics by over 50 percent; geothermal by four percent; solar water heating by over 20 percent; and ethanol and biodiesel production rose by 10 percent and nine percent respectively.

Most of the reviewed scenarios estimate that renewables will contribute more to a low carbon energy supply by 2050 than nuclear power or fossil fuels using carbon capture and storage.

Developing countries host more than 50 percent of current global renewable energy capacity, the report shows.

Youba Sokona, co-chair of the Working Group III, said, “The potential role of renewable energy technologies in meeting the needs of the poor and in powering the sustainable growth of developing and developed economies can trigger sharply polarized views.”

“This IPCC report has brought some much needed clarity to this debate in order to inform governments on the options and decisions that will needed if the world is to collectively realize a low carbon, far more resource efficient and equitable development path,” said Dr. Sokona, who serves as executive secretary of the Sahara and Sahel Observatory in Tunisia.

Steam rises from a geothermal power plant in Grindavik, Iceland. Some 70 percent of Iceland’s energy needs are met by geothermal power. (Photo by John Durston)

Though in some cases renewable energy technologies are already economically competitive, the production costs are currently often higher than market energy prices.

But if environmental impacts, such as emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases, were monetized and included in energy prices, more renewable energy technologies may become economically attractive, the report notes.

For most renewable technologies, costs have declined over the past several decades and the authors expect significant technical advancements and further cost reductions in the future, resulting in a greater potential for climate change mitigation.

Public policies that recognize and reflect the wider economic, social and environmental benefits of renewable energies, including their potential to cut air pollution and improve public health, will be key for meeting the highest renewables deployment scenarios, according to the report.

Ramon Pichs, a Cuban economist who serves as co-chair of the Working Group III, said, “The report shows that it is not the availability of the resource, but the public policies that will either expand or constrain renewable energy development over the coming decades.”

“Developing countries have an important stake in this future,” said Pichs. “This is where most of the 1.4 billion people without access to electricity live yet also where some of the best conditions exist for renewable energy deployment.”

This report on renewables will feed into the broader work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as it prepares its Fifth Assessment Report, scheduled for finalization in September 2014.

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