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A Plan for 100% Renewable Energy by 2050

Posted on 25 March 2011 by dana1981

We recently examined how Australia can meet 100% of its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2020.  Here we will examine how that goal can be scaled up for the rest of the world.

Energy consulting firm Ecofys produced a report detailing how we can meet nearly 100% of global energy needs with renewable sources by 2050.  Approximately half of the goal is met through increased energy efficiency to first reduce energy demands, and the other half is achieved by switching to renewable energy sources for electricity production (Figure 1).

ecofys fig 1

Figure 1: Ecofys projected global energy consumption between 2000 and 2050

To achieve the goal of 100% renewable energy production, Ecofys forsees that global energy demand in 2050 will be 15% lower than in 2005, despite a growing population and continued economic development in countries like India and China.  In their scenario:

"Industry uses more recycled and energy-efficient materials, buildings are constructed or upgraded to need minimal energy for heating and cooling, and there is a shift to more efficient forms of transport.

As far as possible, we use electrical energy rather than solid and liquid fuels. Wind, solar, biomass and hydropower are the main sources of electricity, with solar and geothermal sources, as well as heat pumps providing a large share of heat for buildings and industry. Because supplies of wind and solar power vary, “smart” electricity grids have been developed to store and deliver energy more efficiently.  Bioenergy (liquid biofuels and solid biomass) is used as a last resort where other renewable energy sources are not viable."

To achieve the necessary renewable energy production, Ecofys envisions that solar energy supplies about half of our electricity, half of our building heating, and 15% of our industrial heat and fuel by 2050.  This requires an average annual solar energy growth rate much lower than we're currently achieving – an encouraging finding.

The report notes that wind could meet one-quarter of the world’s electricity needs by 2050 if current growth rates continue, and sets that as its goal.  Ecofys also envisions more than one-third of building heat coming from geothermal sources by 2050.  If we double current geothermal electricity production growth rates, it can provide 4% of our total electricity needs by that date.  Ocean power, through both waves and tides, accounts for about 1% of global electricity needs in 2050.  Hydropower, which currently supplies 15% of global electricity, ultimately supplies 12% in the Ecofys scenario.  As you can see in Figure 2, global renewable energy use ramps up gradually between now and 2050.

ecofys fig 4

Figure 2: Energy use by source between 2000 and 2050

Burning biomass (such as plant and animal waste) will supply 60% of industrial fuels and heat, 13% of building heat, and 13% of electricity needs.  Much of the proposed biomass use comes from plant residues from agriculture and food processing, sawdust and residues from forestry and wood processing, manure, and municipal waste.  All of these renewable energy technologies currently exist, and it's just a matter of implementing them on a sufficiently large scale.

Ecofys also envisions using currently existing technology and expertise to "create buildings that require almost no conventional energy for heating or cooling, through airtight construction, heat pumps and sunlight.  The Ecofys scenario foresees all new buildings achieving these standards by 2030."  2–3% of existing buildings will also need to be retrofitted per year to improve energy efficiency.  Ecofys notes that Germany is already retrofitting buildings at this rate.  Transportation must become more efficient, using more fuel efficient vehicles like electric cars, and increasing use of mass public transportation.

Accomplishing all of this will require a major effort, but Ecofys has a number of suggestions how we can start:

  • Introduce minimum efficiency standards worldwide for all products that consume energy, including buildings
  • Build energy conservation into every stage of product design
  • Introduce strict energy efficiency criteria for all new buildings
  • Introduce an energy tax, or perhaps a carbon emissions price
  • Help developing countries pursue alternatives to inefficient biomass burning, such as such as improved biomass cooking stoves, solar cookers and small-scale biogas digesters
  • Substantial investment in public transportation
  • Make individuals, businesses, and communities more aware of their energy consumption, and encourage increased efficiency

Undoubtedly you're wondering how much this will all cost.  Ecofys finds that we will need to divert up to 3% of global gross domestic product (GDP) to investments in materials and energy efficiency, renewable energy, and necessary infrastructure.  However, we also save money in terms of reduced fossil fuel use.

The report finds that we can save nearly 4 trillion Euros ($5.7 trillion) per year by 2050 based on energy efficiency savings and reduced fuel costs, as compared to business-as-usual.  The up-front investments are expensive, but savings will begin to exceed those costs by 2040, and even sooner if oil prices rise faster than expected, or if we factor in the costs of climate change and the impact of burning fossil fuels on public health.  The plan will reduce energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, which will give us a fighting chance to avoid the 2°C global warming "danger limit".

There's a saying, "where there's a will, there's a way".  In this case we have a way to fully transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2050.  The question is, do we have the will?

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Comments 151 to 174 out of 174:

  1. Philippe, even if CO2 had no infrared bands, we would have faced anyway the exhaustion of FF, and finding replacements would have been mandatory anyway. What I'm stressing here is that it is by no means granted that we will succeed in doing this, and that blindly believing in all fake fire brigades like Ecofys could only worsen the problem.
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  2. 152 : end of economic growth doesn't mean sudden collapse of civilization - it just means that growth scenario of FF consumption and GDP such as described by the SRES are unrealistic. So if you really think that CO2 is the worst problem of the future, it should be acknowledged as a benediction.
    My opinion is however is that it will be very difficult to avoid an overall world recession, and that basically the current "developing" countries will never succeed in reaching the standard western level. This opinion is not a computer scenario for 2030 , 2050 , or 2100. It is just the observation of the real state of the world - all commodities climbing to the sky, the debts climbing accordingly, the only regulation being through recessions. I'm not saying "non" to opportunities - I'm very glad if you can offer any opportunity to avoid recessions. I'm just observing that building windmills or putting solar panels on a roof have never protected any individual or any country from economic crisis - because the problem is in the always diminishing yields and increase of all production costs - and replacing an expensive energy source by another expensive or inconvenient energy source doesn't solve the problem. I'm not saying "no" to opportunities : I'm just reckoning they're not enough to fix the issue.
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  3. bug : next muoncounter's post has been posted before this one actually ...
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  4. Gilles#149: "We begin the era of struggle for exhausting resources - meaning in reality the end of economic growth"

    So the real Gilles has finally emerged: Civilization to collapse, apocalypse on the horizon. Why then are you not fully committed to this or some other fully renewable scenario, as the last gasp of a civilization in peril?

    Could it be that it's simply easier to be a nay-sayer, shouting 'non!' at every opportunity? Could it be that doing the work necessary to offer something constructive is not Gilles' cup of cafe-au-lait?
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  5. Perseus -

    What's your evidence that "several weeks or months" of storage would be required under a renewables policy during winter anticyclonic conditions?

    I very much doubt that such an extended storage period would be required.

    I think what you would need is a combination of the following:

    1. A continental grid.

    2. Compressed air storage.

    3. Hydro storage.

    4. Methane/hydrogen storage.

    5. Ramping up biofuel production during these periods.

    6. Ramping up energy from waste production during these periods.

    7. Giving tarrif discounts to organisations that agree to reduce energy usage during these periods.

    8. Keeping a reserve gas facility for emergencies.
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  6. I agree with Muoncounter...

    There are clearly loads more hydrocarbons available on the planet. Price might go up, but that just makes exploration and extraction more attractive.

    But if the trends continue for the next 20 years we will see renewables become cheaper than hydrocarbons. Onshore wind is already cheaper than nuclear.

    Once renewables are fully price competitive, they will quickly come to dominate electricity generation.

    In terms of economic growth, there is no reason why we shouldn't continue to enjoy huge increases in per capita wealth once we get population on a reducing trend.

    Within the next 100 years, the likelihood also is that we will see a growth in the space economy providing effectively limitless raw materials and energy (solar energy will be beamed to earth by microwave beam).
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  7. "
    There are clearly loads more hydrocarbons available on the planet. Price might go up, but that just makes exploration and extraction more attractive. "

    No, they don't "just" do that. You "just" forgot the other half of the of the supply and demand law : when prices go up, the demand decreases.


    dwindling supplies means actually that the red curve goes to the left - meaning more expensive FF and less production.

    Actually the production per capita has been fairly constant during 30 years, and the GDP growth has been obtained only through demographic expansion and improvement of energy intensity. But with decreasing resources, it is not granted at all that this pace can be maintained.

    "
    But if the trends continue for the next 20 years we will see renewables become cheaper than hydrocarbons. Onshore wind is already cheaper than nuclear. "

    think of a simple question : what makes the cost of renewable energy ?

    another thing is of course that the capacity of renewable generation is limited by intermittence - and yet another one is that FF can't be replaced by electricity in all their uses.

    All this together doesn't make the situation so comfortable you think, by far. The oil price is climbing anew to the sky. I predict that we won't wait for years before the next economic crisis, which will be still worse than the previous one - and like the previous one, no rush on renewables- just more poor people.
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  8. Gilles,

    No - don't accept any of what you say.

    1. There is no evidence of dwindling hydrocarbon supply. There is only evidence of dwindling "easy to get at" hydrocarbon supply. Quite a different matter.

    2. I have never accepted that "supply and demand" is the general determinant of price. Were Model T Fords cheaper than previous cars because demand had decreased or supply had increased? No. Rubbish. They were cheaper because Ford had discovered a way of making more of them for the same money. He could have restricted the supply to a 10,000 rather than a million and he would still have been able to make them more cheaply. It's technology that determines price, not supply and demand.

    2. Intermittence is most definitely NOT a problem for renewables. We have the technology now to address that through compressed air, hydrogen or methane production, chemical batteries, pumped hydro, and molten salts. ]#

    The more the oil price climbs, the better for renewables.

    FF can be replaced entirely by renewables. Name me one use of FF that cannot be replicated by electricity! (I mean fuels of course and not the plastics industry.)
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  9. "
    1. There is no evidence of dwindling hydrocarbon supply. There is only evidence of dwindling "easy to get at" hydrocarbon supply. Quite a different matter. "

    As I explained, dwindling "easy to get at" (conventional) supplies means exactly what I said : moving the red curve to the left.

    Now if you think that there is no evidence that the production is actually peaking, it's probably that you don't follow closely what's currently happening. For instance, look at the prediction vs reality of the last years EIA forecasts for oil production :



    compare the 2007 to 2010 predictions : already 5 Mbl/yr of oil gone in only three years ! man.. where has all this oil gone ? and no - this has not begun after the economic crisis but before it. You don't see the evidence, because you don't want to see it.


    "
    2. I have never accepted that "supply and demand" is the general determinant of price. Were Model T Fords cheaper than previous cars because demand had decreased or supply had increased? No. Rubbish. They were cheaper because Ford had discovered a way of making more of them for the same money. He could have restricted the supply to a 10,000 rather than a million and he would still have been able to make them more cheaply. It's technology that determines price, not supply and demand.
    "

    that's precisely because the production costs had decreased, moving the red curve to the right- exactly the opposite of the FF case. Leading to more production at a cheaper price. It's no rubbish, it's perfectly understandable - you dismiss explanations that you're using yourself.

    Side remark : if a high price doesn't prevent people from using FF, then how a carbon tax would work ?


    "

    2. Intermittence is most definitely NOT a problem for renewables. We have the technology now to address that through compressed air, hydrogen or methane production, chemical batteries, pumped hydro, and molten salts. ]#"

    We have, but they aren't cheap - I know no country basing its energy supply on these techniques, they're only marginal.


    "
    FF can be replaced entirely by renewables. Name me one use of FF that cannot be replicated by electricity! (I mean fuels of course and not the plastics industry"

    I suggest you to go in Iceland and explain them how to do this : thanks to geothermal and hydro electricity, they have plenty of renewable electricity , much more than what they really actually need for their personal use (so they build huge aluminium plants to use it and export the aluminium.

    But still, they import a lot of oil and coal, whereas they're totally deprived of FF resources, and they're not cheap.( see for instance here for data. I saw in Iceland some boat tours that closed because of too high fuel costs. So much probably they're not aware of all the capacities you seem to know perfectly. I think you could make pretty much money there if you sell them your marvelous solutions. BTW all their renewable electricity didn't prevent them to be cruelly hit by the economic crisis, which was the only reason why their consumption decreased in the last years. Again, just open your eyes.
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  10. Gilles -

    1. I don't deny that we may be approaching the peak for oil, but oil is not the only hydrocarbon and the peak may still be decades away. Gas supplies look like they are nowhere near peak.

    2. My problem is with people who read graphs as though they are causal factors themselves. All the supply and demand graph does is tell you how people are likely to react to the cost changes brought about by technology. In terms of future energy supply, supply and demand are not in my view that important. The key factors are what technologies can be delivered at what cost.

    Of course governments manipulate energy costs through taxes and subsidies. About 70% of the price of petrol (gasoline) in the UK is actually made up of government taxes. And people do reduce their mileage if petrol costs rise significantly.

    3. You know of no government that is based its energy plan on energy storage of renewables? I agree that is the case, but things are moving fast. I think this will be the next stage - developing affordable storage.

    As for Iceland, I think that reflects the issue of political will. I presume a lot of their oil imports are going into petrol/diesel for road vehicles. There's no reason why they couldn't switch to electric road vehicles. Certainly both Israel and Denmark are investing in the battery changing technology which I think will revolutionise road transport as the problem of range is now solved.

    I know we can't do everything at once, but I think while we transform our energy base, we can use gas and coal with carbon capture as a stopgap.
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  11. If anyone is interested in a little easy listening, here's an interview with Shai Agassi of Better Place electric car battery swapping station fame; and a CNN article for food for thought.
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  12. daniel
    1. Nobody has said that natural gas and coal were about to peak - nevertheless if peak oil occurs now, it means that growth predictions like EIA's ones are over-optimistic and should not be believed like Gospels. And it also means that global peak follows closely that of conventional reserves - because unconventional reserves are nowhere near approaching the production capacity of conventional ones. Now if you apply the same idea to gas and coal, you would find a natural gas peak around 2030 and a coal peak may be around 2060- however the total will be of the order of the lowest SRES scenario, leading to around 550 ppm CO2 eventually. This may be too much for you - but I estimate it is unlikely it will be much less anyway.

    "2.The key factors are what technologies can be delivered at what cost. "

    That's basically a problem of supply and demand.

    "Certainly both Israel and Denmark are investing in the battery changing technology which I think will revolutionise road transport as the problem of range is now solved. "

    Sorry for being irremediably skeptical, but I'll wait until I see.
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  13. Gilles #162: "Sorry for being irremediably skeptical, but I'll wait until I see."

    Nice. Take the easy way out; rather than endorse any course of action. Guarantees that you will hardly ever be wrong, at least in theory. However, like the broken clock, you're hardly ever right.
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  14. muoncounter wrote : "Nice. Take the easy way out; rather than endorse any course of action. Guarantees that you will hardly ever be wrong, at least in theory. However, like the broken clock, you're hardly ever right."


    Gilles's comment seems to be even more insidious than you may have noticed at first glance : he wrote that he wants to wait until he sees ("wait until I see").
    This seems to mean that he can deny and discard anything unless he actually sees it personally for himself, i.e. projections and forecasts will not be accepted until they actually happen, and can be seen to happen to his own satisfaction !

    Or is this just another case of Gilles's use of English as a second language creating a barrier between himself and the rest of us ?
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  15. 163, muoncounter,
    164, JMruphy,

    These are interesting, based on the comment I just made to Gilles on the How I lived through a carbon tax thread, where he basically says the same thing. His position there is that a tax won't work, and nothing will work, so don't do anything.

    In fact, in the year of long, blathering, bombardments of posts by Gilles here and at RC, that has in fact been the recurring theme. He says he believes in climate change, and that we must ween ourselves from fossil fuels, so in that way he sounds like a concern troll, but his final position always comes down to the fact that nothing will work, so why try, or at least why not wait and see?

    I equate him to the man who jumped from the skyscraper and was heard to say, every time he passed an open window, "so far, so good!"
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Yet by giving him the attention he so craves we feed into the trolling. In the spirit of living well being the best revenge, DNFTT. ;)
  16. Actually, Dan, while I do not intend to feed him further, I do think it important for people to clearly see a troll for what he is finally and ultimately, with any veil of pretense removed.

    After devouring and defecating endless piles of steaming data and graphs and assertions, giving his position and his logic and his evaluation apparent depth and substance and meaning, his position is, in the end, merely to stand on the bridge and announce that "none shall pass."
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Understood.
  17. Anyone know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, in an atmosphere raised to 750 ppm CO2?
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Which kind, African or European?
  18. Actually, DB, Sphaerica; I had something something more like this come to mind.
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Warning: Mature content.
  19. 168, KR,

    Funny (to me)... but probably too off-color for SS. The unwary should be forewarned...
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  20. DB, KR,

    I was actually thinking, in the end, more along the lines of this:

    Internet Bridge Troll
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  21. 164 : Murphy i'm skeptical about predictions that don't seem to be confirmed by facts, and I believe in predictions that seem to be confirmed by facts.

    Example of the first kind : "Certainly both Israel and Denmark are investing in the battery changing technology which I think will revolutionise road transport as the problem of range is now solved."

    Well I was in Denmark last year and I didn't see any electrical vehicles, and I don't think there are a lot in Israël - also I admit that Israël could be one of the best places since nobody can travel a long distance with a car - fortunately not a lot of places in the world like that. So for the moment - no facts.

    Example of the second kind : "the end of cheap oil" - written by Laherrère and Campbell in 1998. I was very impressed by the visionary prediction that prices of oil should climb to the sky ten years after - a fact that no agency had predicted. And that oil would peak around 2010 - no SRES scenario said that - and yet it seems to happen. Yes, that's facts !


    Spherica : "His position there is that a tax won't work, and nothing will work, so don't do anything."

    Nothing will work for what ? it it is to reduce CO2 emission, yes, something will work : the natural depletion of cheap fossil resources - and no swallow, either african or european, will have to experience a 750 ppm CO2 atmosphere.

    And generally, I appreciate the kind of answer you try to bring - seems you don't really have something else in your pockets - I assume again that this post will be considered as unacceptable given the general quality of the previous ones !
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  22. Gilles#171: "I was in Denmark last year and I didn't see any electrical vehicles, and I don't think there are a lot in Israël"

    Sadly, you are running fact-free once again.
    Israeli Batteries Will Charge Up Mia Electric Vehicles in Europe
    Europe-wide Green eMotion Initiative To Pave the Way for Electromobility

    Please bear in mind the following are rhetorical questions, as I have no particular interest in your replies. And discussion of these items is clearly off-topic for this thread. If you insist on turning every conversation to the world oil supply, you really should find another forum.

    "Laherrère and Campbell in 1998. I was very impressed by the visionary prediction that prices of oil should climb to the sky ten years after ... that's facts !"

    Climb to the sky? Is that an inflation-adjusted sky? Where the current price is only $20 more than the 1979 peak?

    "And that oil would peak around 2010" How did you establish this peak so quickly?

    "the natural depletion of cheap fossil resources" Yes, we should just wait and see. A sound economic and social policy, guaranteed to let the haves continue to have and the have-nots disappear from view.
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  23. Muoncounter , maybe we should spend a little time to discuss what is a "fact" and what is a "wishful thinking" - obviously we disagree somewhat on the definition since you present me what you think being "facts" - that are not for me.

    " Where the current price is only $20 more than the 1979 peak? "

    because higher prices do provoke recessions that destroy demand, and so you have a natural limit that cannot be exceeded (that's the essence of the origin of peak ! you *must* destroy demand at some point).

    The fact is this price has been reached twice in some years, without any violent geopolitic event like in 1973 or in 1979 - and without any warning or any forecast of any people you seem to believe in. Again, the main quality of a scientific paper is not the number of citations or the name of the authors - it is its predictive power.
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  24. I'm beginning to think that we need to think of using solar and wind to create methane, as a way of fast tracking to 100% renewables. (The methane is made from water and air).

    Here's an interesting recent article on Caltech research.

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/stories/2011/3155436.htm

    Methane has lots of advantages: we already have transport and transfer networks for this gas and we already have the generators in place. We can make the methane in those sunny desert zones where solar energy works best. Then we avoid the need for huge Desertec-style grid schemes, that in any case are vulnerable to terrorist and other disruption.
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