What can be done about our dismal energy future?
Every day, headlines scream about the price of oil, the climate disruption caused by coal, the dangers of natural gas “fracking,” and uncontrollable nuclear accidents.
Is another future even possible, or are we stuck in a permanent crisis?
On May 9, 2011, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation authored by more than 120 scientists, technologists, and economists who dug deeply into this question.
The report finds that renewables could generate 80 percent of the world’s energy by 2050, if we just put our minds, money and political will to the task.
“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,” said Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the working group. “However, the substantial increase of renewables is technically, and politically, very challenging.”
The report is refreshingly hopeful for developing nations.
Ramon Pichs, co-chair of the group, said, “Developing countries have an important stake in this future—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.”
The IPCC researchers reviewed more than 160 scenarios and dug deeply into the most promising ones. The group studied six types of renewable energy, including bioenergy, solar, geothermal, hydropower, ocean and wind.
Among the findings:
- Photovoltaics can be rapidly deployed in rural areas, leapfrogging the need to install expensive regional electricity grids.
- Advanced biofuel systems, like converting woody wastes into liquid fuels, can deliver 80 to 90 percent emission reductions compared to fossil fuels.
- Renewables cut air pollution, which is costing the global economy billions of dollars a year in health-care costs alone.
- The conversion to renewables would also cut greenhouse-gas emissions by around one-third, and improve public health internationally.
- Wind could provide more than 20 percent of the world’s power by 2050.
- Ocean power, be it kinetic, thermal or the chemical energy of seawater, are all very promising and deserve increased research investment now.
- Second-generation hydropower offers great promise with the introduction of large and small run-of-river and in-stream projects.
- By 2050, geothermal deployment could meet more than 3 percent of global electricity demand and about 5 percent of the global heat demand.
- In the best-case scenarios, solar power can provide one-third of global electricity generation by 2050.
- Supportive public policies that have catalyzed the expansion of renewables in countries such as China and Germany and may offer a roadmap to other nations.
Read the Summary for Policymakers here (note – large pdf file)