Is 100% renewable energy feasible for the world, or is it just a pipedream? It can be reality, according to a new report issued by Greenpeace. Energy [R]evolution: A Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2015 contends that it is possible for Earth's electricity needs to be 100% provided by renewable energy by 2050, replacing both fossil-fuels and nuclear energy as electricity sources.
That is an exciting premise, but it does depend on a lot of assumptions — technical, financial, and political — that are quite optimistic. Still, the claim is just feasibility, and that does seem reasonable under the given sets of assumptions.
The timing of the release is likely not a coincidence. It came out just ahead of the UN Climate Summit in Paris, so world leaders could use this report as a reference when they discuss ways to deal with climate change.
Greenpeace is quite clear about what it considers the biggest challenge — the political argument within key nations, including the U.S. Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace’s executive director, urges that leaders "must not let the fossil fuel industry's lobbying stand in the way" and asks skeptics to read the report and "recognize that it (100% conversion to renewable energy) can be done and must be done for the benefit of people around the world."
The upfront price tag seems to be a more likely stumbling block, although that cannot be extricated from the political argument. According to the report, nearly $1.6 trillion per year in annual investment is necessary to reach the "Advanced Scenario" 100% renewable mark by 2050, or approximately $64.6 trillion over the next 35 years.
A fanciful forecast? Not necessarily. Greenpeace points out that its report is part of a collaborative effort with the German Aerospace Center (DLR), among other scientific contributors. Greenpeace also accurately points out that so far they have done a better job in predicting growth in the clean energy sector than the U.S. Department of Energy, the International Energy Agency, or analysts with Goldman Sachs. However, getting a forecast right in the infancy stages of new technology is a completely different animal than predicting conversion and replacement of existing technology. Assumptions do not necessarily transfer.
Greenpeace counters that it is not a question of forecast. Their point is that we must achieve this goal, or risk going beyond the 2°C target on limiting global mean temperature change, "above which the impacts become devastating."
Let's take that as a given, regardless of your views. What are the underlying assumptions to make this scenario happen, aside from the investments and government incentive programs tilted toward supporting renewables and away from fossil fuels?
Some of the assumptions are quite reasonable, such as the development of improved battery storage options and smart grids to handle peak loads and distribute electricity more evenly to match demand. A great deal of progress has already been made in this area, and the decentralized energy concept is such a large technological enabler that it already has significant positive momentum.
Other assumptions come with a large dose of salt, such as the $64.6 trillion price tag being covered by future savings in fuel costs. This not only requires 100% adoption of renewable energy but many assumptions on efficient use of that energy that decrease demand. Not only will new systems require the corresponding technological advances, older facilities will have to be refurbished — and most importantly, all citizens of the world will have to adapt to new lifestyles that focus on energy savings and adoption of the new technologies and concepts. Good luck with that one, Greenpeace.
For more information, you can download the entire Greenpeace report and make your own decisions on feasibility and urgency.
Regardless of your belief, or lack thereof, in climate change and the urgency of conversion to renewable energy, surely we can all agree that economically feasible renewable energy is a desirable goal. If leaders can look at the Greenpeace report through that prism instead of a political one, perhaps we can address the issues and make economical renewable energy a reality.