Can The World Run On 100% Renewable Energy?

Can the world run on 100% renewable energy?

Renewable energy comes from natural sources that are constantly replenished, such as sunlight, wind, water, plants, and geothermal heat. The major renewable energy sources used today are solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, and geothermal. With climate change and energy security becoming increasingly important issues worldwide, there has been growing interest in powering the world with 100% renewable energy.

This article examines whether it would be technically and economically feasible to transition the world to 100% renewable energy. Given the falling costs and rapid growth of renewables like solar and wind power, combined with concerns about fossil fuel pollution and depletion, understanding the potential and challenges of achieving 100% renewable energy is an important and timely issue.

Current Share of Renewables

In 2020, renewable energy accounted for 29% of global electricity generation, up from 27% in 2019 according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The growth was driven primarily by solar and wind power. Solar PV generation increased by over 20% in 2020 while wind power grew by close to 14%.

According to Our World in Data, the global share of electricity from renewables has steadily grown from around 20% in 2000 to nearly 30% in 2019. Hydroelectric power has historically been the largest renewable electricity source. However, wind and solar have seen rapid growth over the past decade. From 2009 to 2019, solar energy grew over 50-fold while wind energy grew over 3-fold.

The IEA reports that in 2020, hydropower accounted for around 16% of global electricity generation, wind around 8%, and solar PV around 3%. Bioenergy and geothermal made up the remainder. Renewable energy’s share in heating, cooling and transport is lower but growing. The IEA projects renewable electricity to account for over 45% of global generation by 2040 if current policies continue.

Potential of Renewables Expansion

There is significant potential to greatly expand renewable energy, especially wind and solar power. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the technical potential for onshore wind power in the United States is over 32,000 TWh per year, offshore wind is over 7,200 TWh per year, utility-scale solar PV is over 80,000 TWh per year, and concentrating solar power (CSP) is over 37,000 TWh per year (https://www.nrel.gov/gis/re-potential.html). Global studies also show enormous potential for renewables expansion, with median estimates of technical potential at 7,370 EJ (over 2,000,000 TWh) per year for solar PV and 14,470 EJ (over 4,000,000 TWh) for wind energy (https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-environ-112321-091140).

However, there are constraints that limit the feasible deployment of renewables. Factors like land use restrictions, geographic limitations, transmission infrastructure, storage needs, and grid flexibility must be considered. Areas with the best solar and wind resources may lack proximity to population centers that need electricity. Upgrades to transmission lines that can handle intermittent generation from renewables are also critical (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032111003984). While technical potential is vast, actual expansion will require holistic planning and grid integration.

Grid Reliability with 100% Renewables

One of the biggest concerns about transitioning to 100% renewable energy is whether the grid can remain stable and reliable with intermittent sources like wind and solar. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, so critics argue that renewables may not be able to meet demand at all times without baseload power from fossil fuels or nuclear.

However, studies have shown that reliability is achievable with the right grid upgrades and management. Solutions like energy storage, transmission interconnections, demand response, and forecasting can help smooth out renewable generation and match it to demand (NREL, 2021). Places like California, Denmark, and South Australia already manage high shares of wind and solar without reliability issues.

Batteries and other storage technologies can store excess renewable energy when supply exceeds demand and dispatch it when needed. Interconnecting regional grids allows sharing of resources across larger areas. Demand response shifts flexible electricity use to times of high renewable output. Accurate forecasting helps grid operators predict renewable generation in advance.

Studies for the continental U.S., California, and Oregon have all concluded that 80-90% renewable electricity is achievable at moderate costs while maintaining reliability. With the right tools, there are no technical barriers to 100% renewables from a grid stability standpoint (Center for American Progress, 2022).

Economic Viability

The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for renewables has dropped significantly in the past decade and is now competitive with or even lower than conventional energy sources like coal and gas. According to Our World in Data, utility-scale solar PV and onshore wind have estimated global LCOEs of around $40 per MWh, compared to $50-90 per MWh for new coal or gas plants. Further cost reductions for renewables are expected as technologies improve.

However, renewables still rely heavily on government subsidies and policy support in many markets. Most new wind and solar projects would not be economically viable today without incentives like tax credits, feed-in tariffs, renewable portfolio standards, and carbon pricing schemes that help improve the competitiveness of renewables over fossil fuels. Phasing out these market intervention policies too quickly could jeopardize the transition to higher renewable energy penetrations.

Integrating large shares of variable renewables also requires investments in grid flexibility and energy storage technologies, which can increase costs. But several studies show the costs of grid integration are manageable at penetration rates of 30-50% and may only cause a fraction of a cent per kWh increase in the LCOE for solar and wind power. With continuing technology advancements and scaled deployment, costs are expected to decline further.

Political and Social Feasibility

There is growing support among policymakers to adopt 100% renewable energy targets. Numerous cities, states and countries have already set goals to transition to 100% clean electricity by 2050 or earlier, including California, New York, Hawaii, and over 150 cities in the U.S. According to Pew Research, as of June 2023, 63% of Americans think the U.S. is doing too little to reduce the impacts of climate change. This demonstrates public appetite for ambitious renewable energy policies at the federal level.

Recent public opinion polling shows broad support among American voters for expanding renewable energy and addressing climate change. A 2021 survey found that majorities support President Biden’s goal of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035, even in traditionally fossil fuel-reliant states. Another poll from 2019 showed strong bipartisan support for producing as much electricity from wind and solar as possible, with 88% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans in favor.

While some fossil fuel industry interests continue to resist the transition, momentum is clearly building for policies to rapidly scale up renewable energy deployment in the years ahead.

Environmental Benefits

Transitioning to 100% renewable energy would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector. According to the EPA, the grid’s carbon emissions could be reduced by over 80% by switching to carbon pollution-free sources like wind and solar power. This would help meet climate goals like reducing economy-wide emissions by 50% by 2030 (https://www.epa.gov/greeningepa/carbon-pollution-free-electricity-epa).

In addition to limiting climate impacts, phasing out fossil fuels provides major public health benefits by reducing air pollution. Burning coal and natural gas emits particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and other harmful pollutants. Studies show that air pollution from power plants contributes to asthma, respiratory illnesses, heart disease and premature deaths. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates moving to 100% clean electricity could prevent over 22,000 premature deaths annually in the U.S. by 2050.

Challenges and Concerns

Achieving 100% renewable energy faces several challenges and concerns that need to be addressed. Some of the major ones include:

Pushback from fossil fuel industry incumbents – The fossil fuel industry has been dominant for decades and will resist losing their market share. They wield significant political and economic influence that could slow the transition. Stranded assets and job losses in fossil fuel communities may also lead to resistance.

Transition costs and stranded assets – Shifting to 100% renewables will require massive investments in new infrastructure like wind/solar farms, batteries, and transmission lines. Early retirement of fossil fuel plants risks leaving assets stranded. These costs can deter policymakers.

Resistance from communities affected – New renewable projects face local opposition from communities affected by land use changes and viewshed impacts. Addressing community concerns through engagement and appropriate siting/permitting is key.

Overall, the transition to 100% renewables faces social, political, and economic headwinds that must be recognized and managed for success. But the environmental and health benefits make this challenge worth undertaking.

Pathways to 100% Renewables

Several roadmaps have been proposed to achieve 100% renewable energy globally or for major regions and countries. According to researchers at Stanford University, 139 countries accounting for over 99% of global carbon emissions could be powered by 100% clean, renewable energy by 2050 (Source). This would require ramping up renewable energy to reach around 80% by 2030 through rapid deployment of wind, solar, hydroelectric and other zero-carbon energy.

Example national roadmaps include one for the United States to achieve 80% clean electricity by 2030 and 100% by 2050 (Source). The roadmaps require phasing out fossil fuels, electrifying most energy usage including transportation, upgrading transmission grids, energy storage and coordinating demand to match supply. Policy support through targets, carbon pricing, regulations and subsidies for renewables will be critical for the transition.

Conclusion

The research shows that transitioning the world to 100% renewable energy is technically feasible but will require tremendous effort. With current technology, it’s possible for most regions to reach 80-90% renewable electricity by 2050. Achieving the last 10-20% will be the most challenging part and may require advances in energy storage, transmission, and flexible demand.

The key enablers will be continued cost reductions and efficiency improvements in wind, solar, batteries, electric vehicles, and grid modernization. However major investments, policy support, and social acceptance are needed to scale renewables to the required levels while phasing out fossil fuels. The transition will also require holistic thinking beyond the power sector, including decarbonizing heat, industry, and transport.

With climate change accelerating, urgent action this decade is crucial to building momentum towards 100% renewables before mid-century. The technical potential is clear, but the world needs the political will and cooperation to transform our energy systems. With bold policies, innovation, and public support, a 100% renewable future is achievable if we act now.

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