IPCC special report finds renewables could meet over three quarters (75%) of global energy needs in 2050

Combined policies of R&D and deployment will be needed to break through institutional and cost barriers

Of the approximate 300 GW of new electricity generating capacity added globally over the two year period from 2008 to 2009, 140 GW came from RE [Renewable Energy] additions

According to a new Special Report from the IPCC looking at over 160 scenarios, we could get 77% of our global energy from renewables by 2050, thus reducing carbon emissions by 560 gigatons and putting us on a path to stabilize emissions at 450 ppm.  The finding isn’t really new, but carries considerable weight coming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The IPCC report documents the rapid rise of renewable energy in recent years — and makes clear that the future is even brighter if we combine the right set of policies.  That means we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that research and development alone can get us down the cost curve and into the marketplace fast enough to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avert multiple simultaneous catastrophes.

As the report concludes (emphasis in original):

Public research and development (R&D) investments in RE technologies are most effective when complemented by other policy instruments, particularly deployment policies that simultaneously enhance demand for new technologies. Together, R&D and deployment policies create a positive feedback cycle, inducing private sector investment. Enacting deployment policies early in the development of a given technology can accelerate learning by inducing private R&D, which in turn further reduces costs and provides additional incentives for using the technology

A number of studies from researchers and advocacy organizations have shown that, at least theoretically, we could get almost 100% of our energy from renewable resources. But when theory meets reality, the challenges really come to the fore.

The good news: The large team of international researchers found that renewables be scaled without a great degree of technical trouble:

“There are few, if any, fundamental technological limits to integrating a portfolio of RE technologies to meet a majority share of total energy demand in locations where suitable RE resources exist or can be supplied.”

But these technologies are not deployed in a vacuum. Project deployment depends on a number of variables that will increase or limit the potential of renewables:

“The actual rate of integration and the resulting shares of RE will be influenced by factors, such as costs, policies, environmental issues and social aspects.”

Well, that’s a no brainer. But how significant are those challenges?

Financially, the IPCC reports that we’ll need to see $5 trillion in global investment in R&D, project development and new infrastructure over the next decade. And from 2020 to 2030, that investment will need to increase to $7 trillion. Considering that the current global investment record is $150 billion, that figure will need to increase many fold in order to get close to the IPCC’s ambitious target. The World Economic Forum suggests we’ll need to invest more than $500 billion per year through 2030 in order to keep CO2 emissions to 450 ppm.

Of course, delay is even more expensive.  In releasing its 2009 Energy Outloook, the executive director of the  International Energy Agency said, “The message is simple and stark: if the world continues on the basis of today’s energy and climate policies, the consequences of climate change will be severe.”  They explained, “we need to act urgently and now. Every year of delay adds an extra USD 500 billion to the investment needed between 2010 and 2030 in the energy sector”.

And the most expensive thing we could do is nothing at all (see Scientists find “net present value of climate change impacts” of $1240 TRILLION on current emissions path, making mitigation to under 450 ppm a must).

The political challenges (especially here in the U.S.) are also a major barrier – and depending on the stability of policies in place, will determine how much private capital is deployed to renewables. According to last year’s Global Renewables Status report from REN 21, there are over 85 countries with some sort of renewable energy promotion policy in place. That’s up from 45 countries in 2005. However, due to the changing economics of renewable energy (particularly solar PV ) and the impact of government debt crises, many countries are having to re-evaluate their policies, causing boom-and-bust cycles for project development. Determining the most effective policies that reduce government debt burdens, limit the cost to ratepayers and create simplicity in the market is still an evolving concept – and, as outlined by the IPCC report, will vary depending on the region, country or locality.

As the researchers report put it:

“The flexibility to adjust as technologies, markets and other factors evolve is important. The details of design and implementation are critical in determining the effectiveness and efficiency of a policy. Policy frameworks that are transparent and sustained can reduce investment risks and facilitate deployment of RE and the evolution of low-cost applications.”

The infrastructure challenges – building transmission lines, manufacturing facilities, pipelines, refineries and decommissioning existing conventional energy assets to integrate new projects – will be another barrier to development. This inevitably comes back to good policy: A price on carbon, manufacturing incentives, interconnection standards, and the like.

Finally, this report shows once again that it is possible to meet our current energy and climate challenges with existing renewable energy technologies. But the institutional barriers in policy, the financial markets and infrastructure development will determine how realistic that scenario truly is.

— Joseph Romm and Stephen Lacey

JR note:  The IPCC finds that in the 450 ppm cases, wind could be about two wedges and solar (PV and CSP) could be twice that by 2050 (if I’m reading their charts and doing my math right), which is roughly what I said in “The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm“).  They are considerably more bullish than I am on bioenergy, and I tend to think the jury is still out just how much biomass (and biochar) can contribute.

16 Responses to IPCC special report finds renewables could meet over three quarters (75%) of global energy needs in 2050

  1. Richard Brenne says:

    Thanks Stephen and welcome to CP – great to have you here!

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    I think it can happen sooner. We ramped up to fight World War II in about two years. Solar and wind are improving faster than expected, and are close to parity already if carbon and pollution are considered. 2050 is a long way off.

  3. LP says:

    I echo Mike Roddy’s sentiments, at least in theory (which is of course – as pointed out in the article – often far different from reality).

    But I think there is a more qualitative element that could get lost in all the number crunching. With every passing year of lethargic procrastination and yet increasing urgency we are headed more and more towards a scenario where we will be utterly at war with climate change.

    When food crises and energy crises start to really ramp up, those environmental issues and social aspects will finally start to dominate all the policy making, cost analysis, market strategies and other generally bureaucratic thumb-twiddling.

    It will be time to either simply bite the bullet or crumble into complete chaos. The question is which path will the global economy take – and whether or not it will be too little too late anyway.

    In any case thanks for the detailed insight into the challenging (but hopefully rewarding) economic road ahead, and yeah – welcome to CP Stephen!

  4. Rick Covert says:

    Joe, this is the most definitive study confirming that renewable energy can provide nearly all the energy we need and it will never run out. The barriers to deployment ate political, economic and social for the time being.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    I’m having trouble finding the full IPCC report. The webpage
    has much process information, without the report itself.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Color me skeptical, entirely for technical reasons related to grid stability.

    As for biomass, one commenter elsewhere said spilt atoms, not wood.

  7. Solar Jim says:

    This report is off by another 23%. The answer is 100% without question, except from oil pushers.

    Mr. Benson,

    As your sited commenter said spilt atoms have already occurred in numerous accidents and routine releases contributing to public diseases and most recently the tragedy of Fukushima. Not wood, which has been used for light and heat for thousands of years without meltdowns.

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Solar Jim @7 — WHO claims that many thousands of women and children die each year from the use of poorly venilated fires. Vastly more dangerous, by any rational measure, than splitting atoms.

    The only way to have reliable, on-demand electric power with a high proportion of the generation from intermittent sources is by providing massive storage. That is very expen$ive. I suppose that is ok for societies which have considerable wealth but unlikely to appeal to the BRICS states.

  9. Dana Pearson says:

    2025…a goal worth fighting for!

  10. Heraclitus says:

    Could you expand on the ‘more than 160 scenarios’ that this analysis is based on? Quite a few people seem to be using this to dismiss the report, on the basis that the 77% figure is only for an outlying scenario. However, my understanding, and it is not I think made fully clear in the SPM, is that the scenarios are about the agressiveness of our mitigation policies.

  11. Anne van der Bom says:

    David Benson,

    What exactly do you mean by ‘grid stability’? I am sorry to say that it is mostly used to express skepticism towards renewables without exactly understanding the matter at hand. It is like the ‘natural variations’ that climate skeptics use.

  12. Mike # 22 says:

    Joan @ #5, full report comes out May 31

    Wow, what a nice report. I’m not complaining (about the linear progression of this blog), but perhaps CP would set up a permanent area for this report, where CP staff and contributors would unpack all this information and tie it into similar work and the wedges structure. Figure SPM.9 is really useful, need to see the assumptions behind the Category I scenarios, beyond what is here.

    For this purpose a review of 164 global scenarios from 16 different large-scale integrated models was conducted. Although the set of scenarios allows for a meaningful assessment of uncertainty, the reviewed 164 scenarios do not represent a fully random sample suitable for rigorous statistical analysis and do not represent always the full RE portfolio (e.g., so far ocean energy is only considered in a few scenarios) [10.2.2]. For more specific analysis, a subset of four illustrative scenarios from the set of 164 was used. They represent a span from a baseline scenario without specific mitigation target to three scenarios representing different CO2 stabilization levels. [10.3]

  13. Leif says:

    Cost barriers to renewable energy are only present if we continue to ignore the “costs” to humanity of a dying planet. Factor even a small percentage of the costs of acidification of the oceans,medication of impacted population by pollution, infrastructure mitigation of rising seas, loss of species, degraded farm land, disrupted water systems, impacted lives from extreme weather events, etc., well you get the picture. Add even 10% of those and the Green Awakening Economy is the bargain of the era. Our present course becomes nothing more than throwing good money after bad with nothing gained and the hole deeper. (We do get a few fat cats living on the trash hills.) The Awakening Economy actually starts to fill in the hole and perhaps some future generation will be able to see the sun from dawn to dusk. A horizon that stretches into the future as far as the eye can see. The dawn of the species of Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    Mike # 22 (#12)

    Thanks for the link to the access page for the forthcoming full report.

    I really like your idea of a “permanent area for this report, where CP staff and contributors would unpack all this information and tie it into similar work and the wedges structure.”

    Integrative, collaborative, so good.

  15. Mike # 22 says:

    Lief, note that the costs are 5 trillion in this decade, 7 trillion in the next decade, average is just 600 billion/year, or about 1% of global GDP, which fits well with other reports. The other net benefits which you point out are worth this tiny cost, even without the main benefit of a livable climate.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Leif #13 has my fullest agreement. The real costs of nuclear and fossil fuels are simply dismissed into nothingness by the economic droogs of business brainwashing, by being labeled ‘externalities’. In fact, as most informed minds have known for decades, capitalism does not make sense, even in its own terms, unless various sleights of hand are practised, and the ‘externality’ wheeze is one of the most ludicrous. Then you have the standard capitalist practise of privatising that which is profitable, so greater and greater rents can be squeezed out of the serfs, while socialising the costs of infinite economic growth on a finite planet. As always with capitalism its a case of ‘Heads, I (the capitalist)win, tails, you (the proles) lose’. And, outside the phony, make believe world of neo-liberalism and the voodoo economics of market fundamentalism, the physical reality of a finite planet with fragile life-support systems, that take millennia to heal themselves once damaged, stands in absolute contrast to the mindless, greed obsessed quest for ‘More’ of the capitalist predators.