Ten years ago, when our renewable energy outlook looked grim and there was a general feeling that even the most conservative of goals for renewable quotas would be missed, the notion of going 100% renewables was regarded as nothing more than a pipe dream. Since then the public mood around renewables and Climate Change has shifted drastically, and over the past few years we have begun to see that reaching that golden number is definitely possible. There are many success stories of cities, islands, regions, and even some entire countries having made the transition to 100% renewable energy. Most of the places that have achieved it are small, but we should think about them as an example, and a mirror in which to face ourselves and ask ‘why shouldn’t we strive to accomplish the same on a much grander scale?’
Is going 100% Renewables Feasible?
Back in 2011 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced a report detailing how up to 80% of the world’s energy could be supplied by renewables in 40 years time. Two of the most interesting points in this report were that as of now there are virtually no technological limitations keeping us from accomplishing this goal, and that the key barriers that we will need to overcome to do so are in fact social and political. This renders a key truth that needs to be remembered whenever we discuss high-percentage renewable energy scenarios: the main thing that is keeping us from going as far as we want and can is a lack of political will.
In many cases “Social and political barriers” is in fact a euphemism for “powerful forces using their economic clout to influence government and society to preserve a status quo that enormously benefits their bank accounts”. Much like with Climate Change itself, where there is a 97% consensus among scientists but much more skepticism among the public and especially among politicians, the debate is settled: we have the means to begin a massive shift towards a greener energy system right now.
Since 2011, numerous studies have refined the IPCC’s figure upwards, claiming that we can do better than 80%, even going as far as 95% or 100% renewables. How we do this is not at all esoteric or mysterious, we simply have to build more wind farms and install more solar panels. A lot of them.
As renewable capacity increases we will gradually take fossil fuel-burning power stations and nuclear reactors offline. This increase in Renewable Energy generation will combine with improvements to energy efficiency that will moderate demand as time goes on, making it easier to meet full grid load from purely renewable sources. It really is that simple.
The only significant technological hurdle that will have to be overcome is ensuring that renewable electricity is reliable enough to substitute conventional sources, which will be accomplished by diversifying our renewable portfolio. Most of the grid’s demand will be met with energy from solar and wind, but these two will be supplemented by biomethane produced through anaerobic digestion of organic waste, tidal and geothermal energy where conditions allow for it, and hydroelectric. At the same time, some fossil fuel plants will be retained as backups to be used when renewable sources can’t meet grid demand. Moving forward, as renewable electricity storage facilities become ubiquitous these plants will be phased out too or converted to green hydrogen or biomass. Improved electricity storage is already making a break into the mainstream with recent improvements to battery technology, and many researchers and manufacturers are working on industrial-scale solutions that will be able to be connected to the grid.
… but surely it can’t be that easy?
The biggest objection raised by skeptics and opponents of Renewable Energy is the cost such a massive transformation of our society will have, but this sort of criticism is misguided because the figures are actually very encouraging.
A study by Greenpeace detailing how we could reach a 100% renewables target puts the cost at “an average additional investment in renewables of $1 trillion a year” (over current levels). This figure sounds huge until we consider an uncomfortable truth about our current system: oil, coal, and natural gas aren’t free. Getting them out of the earth, processing them, and moving them to power plants costs money. A lot of it. In contrast, harnessing the power of the sun and the wind costs virtually nothing once solar and wind installations have been built. In fact, the annual fuel costs for our current energy system total approximately the same number: $1 trillion. Additionally, the IMF recently revealed that the world’s governments are pumping trillions of dollars in subsidies into the fossil fuel industry – the figure for 2015 is said to be $5.3 trillion. Between fuels costs and subsidies the world is already spending colossal sums of money propping up an unsustainable energy system, so the notion that this spending –which serves to perpetuate a morally bankrupt system– is OK while increasing investment in renewable energy is problematic is laughable.
Going all-in on renewables is now not only necessary but doable. We can’t start soon enough.