With Policy Help, IPCC Says Renewables Could Dominate Energy in 2050

For the past few decades, whenever the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published a new report, it has largely been a chronicle of bad news. Most of their reports have dealt with climate change impacts — how increasing amounts of atmospheric greenhouse gases (largely coming from the burning of fossil fuels) are changing the climate and environment. Yesterday, however, the IPCC broke the mold, releasing a noticeably more optimistic report on the global potential of renewable energy.

Between 2008 and 2009, global wind energy generating capacity grew by 30 percent. Credit: Wayfinder_73/flickr.

In a summary of the full report, the IPCC says it is possible to meet almost 80 percent of the world’s future energy demands from renewable sources, including biomass, wind, solar and geothermal power. While there are still technical hurdles that each of these alternative technologies needs to overcome, the panel says that public policies supporting renewable energy will be the most important factors in making renewable energy affordable and widespread.

More than 120 international researchers contributed to the new report, which “is intended to provide policy relevant information [on renewable energy] to governments, intergovernmental processes and other interested parties.” The full report, to be released later this month, considers a wide range of ways in which renewable energy might be developed and used during the next 40 years.

The projection that renewable technologies can meet nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy demands comes from an optimistic scenario of the future. More realistically, however, the IPCC estimates that renewables could make up at least 30 percent of the global energy supply by 2050. Where the real number ends up depends on what technology is developed and which policies are put in place along the way, the report notes.

According to Daniel Kammen, a contributing author to one of the chapters, the large renewable energy potential is a critical part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent. Such a drastic reduction may be necessary to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 3.6°F above the pre-Industrial era average, which most countries have agreed to doing.

This renewable energy report says that the technology base is there, the potential is there and that we can reach this goal if we are systematic in making decisions to use renewable technology, Kammen says. 

Kammen is currently the chief technology specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency at the World Bank.

Rooted firmly in the present, however, it’s hard to imagine how the proportion of renewable energy could grow by so much so quickly. In 2008, for example, only 13 percent of all energy consumed on the planet came from renewable sources. And most of that, about 10 percent, came from burning traditional biomass, like wood, the report states. 

According to the IPCC report, however, a noticeable growth of renewable energy is already underway; nearly half of the 300 gigawatts of new electric generating capacity installed worldwide in 2009 came from renewable sources. In particular, wind power grew by 30 percent between 2008 and 2009.

Kammen says the IPCC's new work highlights the importance of energy policies that enable the expansion of renewable energy use. “Just saying there is enough energy out there isn’t very interesting,” he says. “There are lots of mixtures of energy technology out there that could get us there, but the market rules have to favor them.” He says that policies at many different levels will be instrumental in increasing renewable energy use. 

So, how does the U.S. actually stack up in terms of renewable energy? Currently, it is second only to China as the world’s largest consumer of renewable energy. Nevertheless, in 2008, only about eight percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. came from renewable sources. And over 70 percent of that was hydroelectricity generated from dams that have been around for decades. As the following graphic shows, states with the greatest hydroelectric capacity, like Washington, Oregon, New York and California, produce more renewable-based electricity than other states.

When the hydroelectric powerhouses are cut out of the picture, the scenario changes, and only Texas and California produce a sizeable amount of energy from renewable sources. And even in the Lone Star State, where new wind turbines are sprouting up every month, still only four percent of the state’s electricity (its largest proportion of renewable energy) came from wind in 2008.

Still, Kammen says there are success stories regarding how renewable energy is being promoted in the US. “It’s not surprising that California is the leading state in terms of solar power. You expect that,” he says. “What you don’t expect is that New Jersey has the second highest amount of solar power.” Kammen attributes New Jersey’s growing proportion of solar power to a state policy commitment that encouraged installation of solar panels.

According to Kammen, there is another aspect of reaching the 80 percent renewable energy target that doesn’t necessarily come across loud and clear in the new report.

“To get there, the entire energy system needs to be more energy efficient. Energy efficiency is the silent partner in all of this,” he says. If all aspects of energy generation, transmission, and consumption are made more efficient, he says, that will go a long way towards reducing the amount of energy the public consumes, which means there is a greater chance renewable sources can meet energy demands.

“Moreover,” he says, “as a global society, we aren’t innovating enough yet for renewable energy.” Kammen says that around the world, and including in the U.S., there aren’t yet enough incentives to motivate people to invent or try out new technology, or implement policy options that will eventually be needed in order to reach the 80 percent renewable energy mark.

While the potential is there, and the report shows this,” he says, “we need to find a way to accelerate innovation, all the way from the lab to developing policy that supports the technology.