100% renewable energy across all sectors possible by 2050 with solar leading the way, study says

A global transition to 100% renewable energy is possible across the electricity, heat, transport and desalination sectors by 2050, and it can be done for cheaper than the current global energy system, a new study claims.

The study from Energy Watch Group and LUT University of Finland outlines a path to a 1.5°C scenario that is able to achieve “a cost decline without the reliance on high-risk technologies such as nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).” A group of 14 energy transition scientists conducted the study over four and a half years using a “state-of-the-art” modeling simulation.

Solar and wind energy are “the new workhorses of the future” in this new projected global energy system, with solar making up an astonishing 69% of the total energy supply by 2050, requiring a enormous total installed capacity of 63,400 gigawatts. Wind energy would make up 18% of the mix, with bioenergy, hydropower, and geothermal accounting for most of the rest.

The study relies on existing technology and battery storage, with an emphasis on electrification and decentralization. While fossil fuels and nuclear energy phase out completely in this scenario, electricity consumption will account for more than 90% of the primary energy consumption by 2050. Lead researcher Christian Breyer said,

“The study’s results show that all countries can and should accelerate the current Paris Climate Agreement targets. A transition to 100% clean, renewable energies is highly realistic – even today, with the technologies currently available.”

This scenario sees 9 million coal mining jobs phased out by 2050, but “overcompensated” for by more than 15 million new jobs in renewable energy. Researchers also foresee the future system as slightly cheaper, costing 53 €/MWh by 2050, compared to 54 €/MWh by 2015.

Getting There

Like many other studies, this one places an emphasis on government intervention to “ensure the swift uptake in the development of renewable energy, storage technologies, sector coupling, and smart energy systems.” The researchers make a number of policy recommendations, including:

  • Policies and instruments focused on sector coupling and enabling direct private investment in renewable energy and other zero emission technologies.
  • Feed-in Tariff laws should be adopted to enable investments (under 40 MW) from decentralised actors, such as small and medium enterprises, cooperatives, communities, farmers and citizens. Tendering procedures for large scale investors should only be applied for utility-scale capacities above 40 MW.
  • A responsible phase-out of all state subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear energy generation is necessary.
  • Introduction of carbon, methane and radioactivity taxes.
  • Incentives created to spur the growth of renewable energy technologies; such as tax exemptions, direct subsidies, and legal privileges.
  • Policies and frameworks that promote research, education and information sharing on renewable energy and zero emission technologies.

President of the Energy Watch Group Hans-Josef Fell said, “The energy transition is not a question of technical feasibility or economic viability, but one of political will.”

Electrek’s Take

It’s hard to come up with a succinct take on a study that takes up hundreds of pages, but it’s somewhat reassuring that the researchers relied completely on existing technologies here. Though there are plenty of questions one could ask after diving into the study, the reliance on solar energy in this scenario seems like a good place to focus.

It’s a massive undertaking to get global solar capacity to the necessary 63,400 GW in this model, as current global estimates place capacity somewhere near 500 GW. Solar capacity grew nearly 100 GW last year — that would have to increase about 20x annually, on average, over the next 30 years.

But another way of looking at it is through exponential growth — if solar capacity grows about 17 percent each year, that would also put the world about on track to meet those marks. That rate makes the goal seem more attainable.

There’s plenty to debate here, but to quote EWG’s president, meeting any ambitious long-term renewable goals is “a matter of political will.” Costs will go down, and technology will continue to improve. It’s important to aim high.


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