New Report Projects Renewable Energy Dominance in 25 Years

Today, Greenpeace International and the European Renewable Energy Council released “Energy [r]evolution: A Sustainable Energy World Outlook.” It is a followup to their early 2007 report that urged policymakers to ramp up efficiency and renewable energy deployment to stop climate change. This report has more detail, as it breaks down the energy portfolios of each region of the world. It also gives updates on the tremendous growth of renewables in 2007 and adds sections connecting its scenario to greater energy security in the developing context of higher fossil fuel prices.
The report makes the case that their strategy would not only mitigate climate change and improve air quality, but it would also save consumers
billions of dollars every year in reduced energy expenses beyond 2020. It calls on governments to put a price on carbon starting within four years which would increase from $10 per ton of carbon dioxide to $50 by 2050. It also calls for a feed-in tariff to support renewable energy installation throughout the developing world funded by the emissions trading market in the developed world. By 2030, half of global electricity is generated by renewables. And by 2050, most fossil fuels are replaced by wind, solar, geothermal and other renewables. The report even goes on to make the case that the whole world can be climate neutral by 2090.

There are three elements of the report that I differ on currently.

1. They fully phase out nuclear power by 2050. While I agree that there are serious cost, environmental, and security concerns that should prevent us from rushing to nuclear power as much as McCain seems interested in doing — I think it may be smart to keep the low-carbon electricity source on the table (potentially keeping it at its current global electricity market share of ~10%). In fact, the nuclear expansion taking place in China, India and elsewhere seems to prevent the complete phaseout they promote.

2. They do not include any carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). While I do not put CCS at the center of my models to achieve emissions reduction, I think (and hope) it will be a useful tool in the box. The report cites enormous coal resources that should last us more than 100 years at current consumption rates. But then it argues that we should leave half of it in the ground. While I support vast improvements in the mining process and am not polyannish that CCS will be market-ready within the next few years, coal may prove to be a crucial energy source for regions that do not have sufficient renewable resources. And if researchers at Princeton and elsewhere can continue to make progress toward successful CCS demonstration facilities around the world, it may accomplish one wedge of the silver buckshot by 2050.

3. I also am not confident that the coal price will rise as quickly as they project, especially given the rapid demand reduction they forecast. If we increase our consumption of coal like the reference scenario of the IEA predicts, then this report’s prediction of $360 per ton coal makes sense to me. But if coal consumption begins a steady decline around 2015, then I think that decrease in demand will stabilize the price at a lower level. And I believe not mentioning this market response is a missed opportunity. The benefits to consumers of ramping up renewable energy is, in part, a reduction in the price of conventional fossil fuels since demand for these energy substitutes falls.

But I do not bring up those differences in an effort to discredit the report. If you have a half an hour+ to peruse their report, I recommend it. The report helps me wrap my brain around the enormous task we have ahead to lower global emissions to a climate responsible level. And the quick growth of the past few years makes me hopeful that we can indeed achieve such a sustainable energy revolution if politicians with green spines are elected this November and in the years ahead.

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