Would A Complete Shift to Renewable Energy Be possible by 2050?
Developed countries in the world are targeting to achieve zero-emission by around 2050. That needs a full stop in using fossil fuel and move to renewable energy sources. It is a challenging task in many ways.
It is known that a shift to the eco-friendly source of energy (renewable energy) as the alternative to fossil fuel is drawing up growing importance across the globe.
The world needs a ‘round the clock’ uninterrupted supply of energy from such sources (renewable) that don’t create pollution and fuel global warming.
Other than renewable, the energy sources could be hydrogen, hydropower or nuclear. All of them don’t spew greenhouse gases (GHG) during their conversion process, but nuclear is not a preferred option for many reasons.
The energy demand is increasing every day along with the development of science and technology.
New machines are being invented to make our life more comfortable every day in work, travel, transport, business and even leisure. All these machines need some form of energy to run.
At the beginning of the industrial revolution, when James Watt first invented the Steam Engine, the supply of energy to the machine was provided by burning wood or coal.
Then onwards, coal has taken the place of principle source for our energy requirements.
At a later stage, petroleum entered as the parallel source of energy creation.
Now we know, these are responsible for spewing greenhouse gases that create environment pollution and global warming. These are dirty fuels.
We didn’t have any clean source of energy until we developed technology for mass extraction from renewable sources like wind, solar and hydropower.
Now that we have the technology, we can go for a complete energy transformation from coal to renewable energy sources within the quickest possible time, to save the earth from further destruction.
Worldwide, coal is a dominating resource (about 50%) for energy generation as of now and burning coal (also oil and natural gas) release a large amount of carbon dioxide and other GHGs.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC) confirm this phenomenon.
Climate scientists are advocating for a global transition away from coal to renewable energies on an emergency basis.
Many countries are also channelling resources to increase the share of renewable energy in their total energy portfolio.
Scientists/technologists are relentlessly working to develop improved technology to harness more volume of renewable energy from the same resource within an economical cost structure.
These may look satisfactory and appropriate moves. But may not be enough to reduce or stop global warming even in the next 5,10,20 or maybe in 30 years.
Of late, I was reading a book titled ‘Fossil Free’. The introductory pages of that book were citing some very startling information about the demand and supply balance of energy transition.
The book informs us that the growth requirement in renewable energy is quite daunting.
6000 GW (gigawatt) is the current electricity generation capacity of this planet, 3000 GW out of this is generated by using coal-based plants and more or less 1000 GW from renewable energy. Rest 2000 GW is from other sources like Hydro power, nuclear etc.
Therefore, as on date 50% of power generation system is releasing harmful carbon dioxide and GHGs. We need to lower down this percentage substantially to reduce global warming.
At the same time, the requirement for electricity is also increasing continuously. Assuming this increase in demand as 3% per annum, we need to add 180 GW of generation capacity p.a. over this present 6000 GW.
In case we want to supply only renewable energy for all our future demand, we will have to add approximately 500 GW capacity installation of renewable energy per year.
Why 500 GW? Because due to the low plant load factor (PLF) in renewable energy plants, this much is required to get an output of 180 GW.
It is quite frightening that after so many global movements on urgent energy shift, we are adding only around 150 GW per year. So, lagging by (500–150) = 350 GW per year.
I am a pioneer team member in the Indian wind energy transition and was feeling more or less happy with the development of the renewable energy sector in my country until I discovered these mathematics.
Further, to replace all coal-based power plants (3,000 GW at present) across the globe, it will need an additional installation of 7,500 GW renewable energy plants (considering the low PLF).
Therefore, at a present rate of 150 GW p.a., it will take (7,500 ¸ 150) = 50 years. So, you can forget about meeting up with the increased demand.
In case renewable energy also grows at a rate of 10% per year, complete replacement of coal with renewable will take about 19 years.
Meanwhile, electricity demand will be growing at a rate of 3% p.a., considering this demand growth factor a complete shift from coal to renewable may take around the next 26 years.
This twenty six years may go longer if renewable energy growth drops below 10% (as assumed) and vice versa.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is projecting a 50% growth in energy demand by 2050. Economic growth in Asian countries will also add up to this. A constant increase in energy demand is already visible in the developed as well as developing world.
To meet this demand growth, it is estimated that global energy production capacity will reach at (600 + 300) = 900 GW by 2050.
And to replace the dirty coal entirely, the renewable energy installation capacity should reach to 15,000 GW by that time, i.e., 15 times the present capacity.
15,000 GW! The volume is enormous. Renewable energy growth potential is unlimited.
The question is, how to realise this potential. It requires capital investment, available land to install plants, expansion of grid capacity, expansion of renewable machine manufacturing capacity and a huge workforce and other fleet machinery to execute the projects.
It is tough! I can recall the acute shortage of erection cranes across India during the initial years.
From the book ‘Fossil Free’ I can cite an example to project the enormity of the work for the transition.
A company with 6 GW of the commissioned renewable plants in India, had to accrue 24,000 acres of land, construct 2,000 KM of roads, erect 3,500 KM of grid lines and dig 20,00000 m3 of the earth to build up this capacity.
So, the amount of effort to grow renewable energy to a scale that we are calling for would be quite challenging and can’t be underestimated.
Above all, the need for capital investment is also massive.
Around $300 billion p.a., which is being invested now globally, will need to be increased to a substantial level and to be maintained for the next 30 years.
An amount from $50 to $60 trillion, at a rate of $1 trillion per year would be needed only to recreate the power generation capacity of the world.
Further investment would also be needed to develop infrastructure, grid building, ancillary capacity building, storage and manufacturing capacity building.
The fund requirement for all these could be an additional $100-$120 trillion.
Therefore, the much needed and highly advocated energy transformation is not an easy task for the world. It calls for a strong global determination and united leadership.
Hopefully, countries will come up and collaboratively save the planet from global warming.
Sinha, S.(2020). Fossil Free. Harper Business.
Note: This article originally published in ‘Technology Hits’ at medium.com