Renewables could power global economy by 2050: study

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith

According to a new study, the global economy could be powered by 100 percent renewables by 2050, and it would cost less to make this transition than to continue using fossil fuels and nuclear power. Moreover, transitioning to 100 percent renewables by mid-century would keep temperature increases below the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit scientists say is necessary to prevent serious damage to the environment due to climate change.

These are the key conclusions of a recent study produced by the Energy Watch Group. The Global Energy System Based on 100% Renewable Energy report, completed by 14 scientists from the EWG and LUT University in Finland, argues that the electricity, heat, transportation, and desalination sectors could run fully on renewables by 2050. In its scientific model, the study suggests that 69 percent of total energy demand could be met by solar power, 18 percent by wind power, 3 percent by hydro power, 6 percent by bio energy, and 2 percent by geothermal energy.

The researchers also recognize that electricity demand will continue to rise substantially; total electricity generation in 2050 will be four to five times greater than it was in 2015, the study’s authors predict. A major factor driving this increase will be the electrification of the transport sector as electric vehicles take over our streets and roads.

The ambitious 100 percent goal is achievable throughout the world, says Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford University in California. “This new paper reaffirms this fact, plus it shows it is possible to avoid 1.5°C global warming by getting to zero net GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions by 2050 without negative emission technologies, fossil fuels with carbon capture, or nuclear power, yet at an affordable cost,” explains Jacobson.

Renewable transition will save money

The study’s authors predict that transitioning to 100 percent renewables over the coming three decades will actually save money: While maintaining a fully sustainable energy system currently costs €54 per megawatt hour ($60.2), it will decline to €53 per megawatt hour by 2050 ($59.1).

Hans-Josef Fell, president of the EWG, believes that the study’s findings will allow his organization to develop national roadmaps tailored to each individual country’s needs so that the transition can take place globally. Referring to the study, Fell adds, “It shows that the whole world can make the transition to a zero emission energy system. That is why all political powers around the world can and should do much more to protect our climate than they currently envision.”

While national roadmaps will take some more time, the study includes some general policy proposals. One is sector coupling, which would integrate energy-consuming economic sectors with the power-producing sector to increase the use and storage of renewables. For example, excess solar energy could be stored in the form of hot water to heat buildings. Other suggestions are the removal of fossil fuel subsidies, tax breaks to encourage private investments, and legal privileges for the renewables sector.

Can the U.S. reach 100 percent renewables by 2050?

Although the study’s authors declare that the transition to renewables is feasible on a global scale with currently available technology, a key question will be how or if the EWG’s proposals are implemented at the national level. In Germany, where the EWG is based, the government committed in 2011 to close down the country’s nuclear power plants, as a response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Earlier this year, the country agreed upon a joint effort between the federal government, local governments, and private businesses to end the production and use of coal by 2038.

Other countries, like the United States, are yet to make such strides. The latest study from the U.S. Department of Energy projects that the American economy could supply 80 percent of its electricity generation from renewable sources by 2050. Even then, with 20 percent of electricity still coming from non-renewable sources, the Renewable Energy Futures Study notes, “At such high levels of renewable electricity generation, the unique characteristics of some renewable resources, specifically geographical distribution and variability and uncertainty in output, pose challenges to the operability of the nation’s electric system.”

To date, four states have committed to obtaining all of their power from carbon-free sources by 2050: California, Nevada, Hawaii, and New Mexico. Legislation is also currently under discussion in New York, Washington, Illinois, and Massachusetts. Unlike the EWG’s report, which calls for 100 percent of energy to come from renewables, the U.S. pledges to use carbon-free or “clean” energy includes nuclear power.

Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views, and at the Canadian Labour Institute.