More than enough renewable energy to meet future global energy demand

» By | Published 09 May 2011

I am just returning from Abu Dhabi where negotiations on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on renewable energy – the most comprehensive review of the sector written by the world’s leading experts on energy and climate science – have drawn to a close.

While the negotiations were long and arduous, the message I take home is clear: With renewables, the world will never run out of energy. In fact the total potential for renewables is “substantially higher than both the current and projected future global energy demand,” according to the report.

With this in mind, it says that the global renewables sector could expand by three to more than 10 times by 2050, and, that there are “few, if any” technological limits to bringing a portfolio of renewable energies online to “meet a majority share of total energy demand”.

Renewables could meet up to 77% of the global primary energy supply by 2050, it says.

Based on a review of 168 scenarios, the report shows that renewable energies are growing rapidly and will make greater contributions to a low-carbon energy supply by 2050, than so-called ‘low-carbon’ technologies (nuclear and fossil fuel CCS). This becomes clear when you consider that renewables are already out-pacing nuclear: global renewable energy production of primary energy (12.9%) was more than six times higher than global nuclear energy production (2%) in 2008.

When it comes to electricity production, the global renewable energy revolution is already well underway. In 2008, renewables contributed around 19% of the global electricity supply. By 2030 wind power alone could be providing 10% of the total global electricity supply and in excess of 20% by 2050 – a massive expansion if you consider that in 2009 wind power met roughly 1.8% of the worldwide electricity demand.

The figures are even more impressive when considering new generation capacity: “Of the approximate 300 GW of new electricity generating capacity added globally over the two-year period 2008-2009, 140 GW (47%) came from renewable energy additions,” the report states. Rates of growth are particularly impressive for wind power. In 2009 alone, wind power accounted for one fifth of all new capacity additions in the world.

What is more, the report says that the costs of integrating massive amounts of wind power are minimal and that wind power is “economically attractive” in the context of global climate change mitigation scenarios. For renewables in general, the message is that many technologies are already competitive and their costs should continue to fall compared to non-renewables, and that is without including the costs of the externalities of climate change.