The entire world could be powered by wind, water and solar energy by 2050
Twice in a month, I’ve gotten to write environmental stories that don’t leave me feeling totally despondent about the fate of the planet. First we were cheered by the news that our action against the hole in the ozone layer 30 years ago was way more effective than we thought. Now new research out of Stanford University paints a very clear plan of how we can get to 100% green energy by 2050 – with no obvious drawbacks.
The paper, published today in Joule, paints a positively rosy roadmap of how 139 countries could be 80% renewable by 2030, and 100% powered by wind, water and solar energy by the year 2050. While it may sound like sacrifices would have to be made to reach that point, the benefits outlined in the paper are enormous: lower energy consumption thanks to the efficiency; a net increase of more than 24 million jobs; between four and seven million fewer air-pollution-related deaths each year; and annual savings of around $20 trillion in “health and climate costs”.
In the past, sceptics of renewable energy have often couched their criticism of green electricity with the message that it’s a wonderful vision, but wholly impractical. To that end, the paper examines the specific output of 139 countries (those that data was publicly available for from the International Energy Agency), and calculates the number of green energy generators required to be 80% self-sustaining by 2030, and 100% by 2050, relative to each country’s needs.
The researchers found that only around 1% of the total land and rooftop areas available were required to make this vision a reality – with a handful of exceptions. While the counties with a greater share of land would have no trouble hitting this target with a strong enough political backbone, smaller, densely populated countries would likely struggle. To that end, nations such as Singapore would most likely need to invest in offshore solar.
“The 139 countries we examined account for over 99% of world emissions,” the study’s lead author, Mark Z Jacobson tells me via email. “The remaining countries are mostly island countries and several countries in Africa for which complete data were not available.
“While we haven’t analysed those countries specifically, we believe that because we were able to find solutions for all 139 other countries (with some more challenging than others), and many of those countries are similar to the countries with missing data, we should be able to find solutions for the countries with missing data as well.”
Perhaps the best part of the research relates to the laws of unintended consequences, which seem to play heavily in the planet’s favour, for once. If we were able to eliminate the need for oil, gas and uranium tomorrow, the researchers calculated that international power demand would drop 13% because there would no longer be the need to mine, transport and refine the fuels. On top of that, since generating renewable energy is more efficient than burning fossil fuels, the researchers reckon we’re looking at a drop in demand of around 23%.
You may notice that the researchers included uranium in the above list. Why are they so keen to dismiss the role of nuclear power in their calculations? A number of reasons, according to Jacobson: the 10- to 19-year setup time (“a single nuclear reactor won’t come online until 2031,” says Jacobson); the “astronomical” costs involved (“2-4 times that of onshore wind and utility solar”); and the associated known risks of nuclear power, including weapons proliferation, meltdown, waste and mining risks. For those reasons, Jacobson says, the researchers see future nuclear plants as “an opportunity cost and distraction from real solutions”.
“Existing nuclear can play a role, but in a case-by-case basis, since, for example, subsidising new nuclear costs more than using that money to build new wind or solar in some cases,” he explains.
How much green to go green?
Critics would contend that the costs involved make the paper’s vision for the future unworkable, but the paper’s authors argue that such an assessment assumes that our current power plants will last forever – which, of course, they won’t. On top of this, the damage averted to the climate and public health by moving away from dirty energy leads to a system that comes in at around a quarter of the current fossil fuel system.
Not that it won’t be costly – in the short term, it certainly will be. “The acceleration of deployment in all countries needs to be a factor of ten to 100 greater than what’s occurring today, since we need most of the transition by 2030 (and 100% by 2050) to avoid 1.5˚C global warming and to eliminate the 4-7 million air-pollution deaths annually worldwide” Jacobson tells me.
“Almost all the technologies we need exist,” he continues. “The main exception is long-distance aircraft, for which we need to develop hydrogen fuel cell-electric hybrids. However, a four-seat hydrogen fuel-cell plane exists and the space shuttles and many rockets were propelled to space by hydrogen, so the technology is there. It needs to be implemented in commercial aircraft by 2035-2040.”
“It appears we can achieve the enormous social benefits of a zero-emission energy system at essentially no extra cost,” commented co-author Mark Delucchi. “Our findings suggest that the benefits are so great that we should accelerate the transition to wind, water and solar as fast as possible, by retiring fossil-fuel systems early wherever we can.”
Convincing the science community shouldn’t be hard, but convincing world leaders is a considerably tougher challenge, especially in the current climate. Still, if even Donald Trump can occasionally see the benefits of solar power, then anything’s possible.