How 140 countries could be powered by 100% of renewable energy sources by 2050

On August 23, the journal Joule, published by Cell Press and focussing on sustainable energy, revealed the latest roadmap to a fully renewable energy future authored by a group of researchers under the leadership of Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University. The roadmap presents a comprehensive vision of what kind of steps a transition to 100% renewable energy would involve for 139 countries. To be entirely powered by wind, solar, and water energy, the governments will need to have their all energy sectors electrified by 2050, but a successful transformation would mean a net increase of over 24 million of long-term jobs, an annual decrease in 4–7 air pollution casualties per year, and annual savings of over $20 trillion in health and climate costs. In addition, the roadmap envisions less energy consumption, cleaner electricity, and stabilization of energy prices as a result of the proposed change.

On the Utility of Roadmaps

This article is about a recent roadmap, and roadmaps enjoy rather bad reputation among the sophisticated public. After all, what’s the purpose of the efforts of drafting a roadmap, involving researchers, analysts, and policy-makers, if there’s no enforcement mechanism, expressed or implied? The roadmap is there, but who would follow it, really? Politics is done behind the closed doors, and material interests, not public commitments, play the decisive part. That’s how the usual story goes. However, it still misses some crucial points.

Sociological and organizational research shows that people do need directions in their decision-making processes, and that public commitments to some objective, in the form of a roadmap, for example (or a business plan in the more private setting), can make a big difference. That is especially true in the case of high-tech industries, where the playground is often unclearly defined, and the stakeholders don’t quite see what’s going to happen even in the short-term. Roadmaps and performance targets help them focus, and also collectively build a shared vision of the future.

For example, if you’re a startup company, you need a business plan — not just because of a pro forma. The business plan, often denounced as a completely useless document, in fact, serves a crucial purpose in the evolution of your business. It is not legally binding, indeed, but it functions as a disclosure mechanism, enabling the potential investors to trust you and to see your skill set and vision of the future business. It also helps yourself by setting clearly the goals you want to achieve, and enabling more detailed performance assessments against these projections.

Or take the example of the Moore’s Law. When it was discovered, a roadmap outlining the projected evolution of transistors was shared among the scientists and industry participants. This document, provisional and non-binding like a business plan, enabled different stakeholders to achieve a shared vision of the future of the semiconductor industry. During the early stages, nothing is more important.

This explains why it is worth looking at the recent renewable energy roadmap published by Joule on August 23. Similar to any and all such documents, it acquires an increasing importance due to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: if you’re a stakeholder in the energy sector, you’re going to look at it, because you reason that others will do so anyway.

The Vision

The roadmap developed by Jacobson’s group provides a target vision of the coming developments towards a low-carbon economy and avoiding the global warming by creating energy self-sufficiency in 139 countries. The roadmap provides detailed assessments of the crucial parameters like the available raw renewable energy resources in each country, the number of renewable generators utilizing wind, solar, and water power, that will be needed to achieve 80% renewable generation by 2030, and a 100% level 20 years after that. It also details how much land and rooftop area these generators would require, with an optimistic conclusion that the number is going to be as little as 1% of the total area available and will significantly reduce energy demand and costs compared to the business-as-usual scenario.

Jacobson is the director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy Program and co-founder of the Solutions Project, a U.S. non-profit educating the public and policymakers about a transition to 100% clean, renewable energy. Contrary to many one-sided views, he believes that the “green” transition can be led by both governments and individuals alike, and sees his role as providing “some reasonable science” to help the policymakers in understanding that such transition is possible. “There are other scenarios. We are not saying that there is only one way we can do this, but having a scenario gives people direction.”

The data selection process was in part motivated, as often is the case, by the availability of the relevant data in the public domain. The 139 countries included in the roadmap have been comprehensively monitored by the International Energy Agency, so that there’s plenty of data available online. In particular, the researchers looked into the data on each country’s electricity, transport systems, heating and cooling, industrial and agricultural sectors, including also fishing and forestry industries. More specifically, the case selection was based on the fact that the countries at issue collectively emit over 99% of all carbon dioxide pollution globally.

Among the interesting and rather counter-intuitive findings, the study shows that the countries with a larger share of land per population, such as the US, China, and the EU, will have an opportunity to effect the transition more smoothly and easily than overpopulated countries like Singapore. The former are projected to achieve the 100% of renewable energy faster and with lesser costs, while for the latter, being an island surrounded by the ocean, the transition to fully solar, wind and water generation may require huge investments in offshore solar facilities.

The Benefits of Transition

The projected “green” transition is expected to bring about a few collateral benefits. First, a transition to 100% renewable energy would mean a deep change in the supporting infrastructure. Once you cease using biofuel and fossil fuel like oil, gas, and uranium, you no longer need the scaffolding infrastructure for mining, transporting and refining these fuels. That alone is quite an economy in terms of energy consumed by processing these substances, which leads to a decrease in the global power demand by 13%. The higher efficiency of electricity as opposed to burning the fossil fuels would also decrease demand by another 23%. Finally, less dependence on natural resources will potentially eliminate the unfavourable international dynamics, such as war and conflict around the fossil fuels issues, and economic shocks like the oil crisis of 1973. Oil has shaped military international conflicts for decades, and the transition to renewable energy might make this relationship less tight, and its consequences less severe. Just look at the picture below.

Moreover, renewable energy is also more accessible for distant communities living in relative insulation: for example, nothing prevents one from installing a large array of solar panels in isolated desert villages of Kazakhstan.

Jacobson’s study stand out precisely because it is not exclusively concerned with the issue of climate change and potential climate benefits of the proposed transition, but maps out the whole socio-economic landscape and how it will change with the gradual adoption of renewable energy. It covers also cost benefits, air pollution benefits, and net jobs benefits triggered by the movement to 100% wind, water, and solar. Jacobson says that “aside from eliminating emissions and avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming and beginning the process of letting carbon dioxide drain from the Earth’s atmosphere, transitioning eliminates 4–7 million air pollution deaths each year and creates over 24 million long-term, full-time jobs by these plans.” “It appears we can achieve the enormous social benefits of a zero-emission energy system at essentially no extra cost,” says co-author Mark Delucchi, a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

Science Daily reports that “the Joule paper is an expansion of 2015 roadmaps to transition each of the 50 United States to 100% clean, renewable energy and an analysis of whether the electric grid can stay stable upon such a transition.” The new study improves the calculations of the availability of rooftop solar energy, renewable energy generation and resources, as well the potential to create new jobs to replace the ones lost. In addition, the new roadmap extends the focus to encompass the world globally.

Contexts and Critiques

Similar to other renewable energy transition projects, Jacobson’s roadmap is not free of criticism. There are several prominent arguments against such visions. First, the critics assert that it is still worth looking at the traditional energy sources, such as biofuel and the “clean coal”, as well as nuclear power, and that those cannot be simply ignored. Second, the transition to 100% of water, wind, and solar energy have been criticized for being dependent on some specific technologies such as underground heat storages, that are possible to organize only in some rocky places, and the use of electric and hydrogen fuel cell aircraft, which now exist only in small planes. Finally, the third line of criticism argues that any such transition would require massive investments in infrastructure that not all countries can really afford.

Jacobson defends his views as follows. Firstly, it was necessary to exclude nuclear power because of its long (10 to 20 years) cycle of planning and operation, as well as its high cost and waste and military risks. “Clean coal” and biofuels are neglected because both are known as heavily polluting the air and emitting 50+ times more carbon per unit of energy than wind, water, or solar power.

As for the underground heat storage, it is not a necessarily required but certainly a viable option since it is similar to district heating, which provides much of the heat in certain countries (for example, as much as 60% of Denmark’s heat). Jacobson also says that space shuttles and rockets have been propelled with hydrogen, and aircraft companies are now investing in electric airplanes. Wind, water, and solar can also face daily and seasonal fluctuation, making it possible that they could miss large demands for energy, but this kind of instability of variable energy sources is well known and can be addressed in several ways. Moreover, the traditional baseline energy generation tends to overemphasize the demand stability which is even harder to predict in rapidly growing economies.

Finally, regarding the social and economic costs of the transition, including the energy, climate and health costs, Jacobson says that, overall, it will be one-fourth of that of the current fossil fuel system. Moreover, most of the costs to be faced upfront will be needed anyway, because the existing infrastructure needs to be replaced, and the rest of the investment will pay itself off by hugely reducing climate and health costs of the society.

The scientific community is generally positive about the roadmap, finding it as pushing forward the “conversation within and between the scientific, policy, and business communities about how to envision and plan for a decarbonized economy,” Mark Dyson of Rocky Mountain Institute, in writes an accompanying preview of the paper.

References:

  1. Jacobson et al. 100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World. Joule, 2017 DOI: 10.1016/j.joule.2017.07.005
  2. Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Guillaume Bazouin, Zack A. F. Bauer, Christa C. Heavey, Emma Fisher, Sean B. Morris, Diniana J. Y. Piekutowski, Taylor A. Vencill, Tim W. Yeskoo. 100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States. Energy Environ. Sci., 2015; 8 (7): 2093 DOI: 10.1039/C5EE01283J
  3. Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Mary A. Cameron, Bethany A. Frew. Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015; 112 (49): 15060 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1510028112
  4. Martin Giraudeau. The drafts of strategy: opening up plans and their uses. Long Range Planning, 41 (3). pp. 291–308. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/36817/
  5. Peter B. Miller P, Ted O’Leary. Mediating instruments and making markets: Capital budgeting, science and the economy. Accounting, Organizations and Society. 2007 Oct;32(7–8):701–734. Available from, DOI: 10.1016/j.aos.2007.02.003

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