Image above: Wind turbines. Source: Wikipedia.
Bogdanov D, Farfan J, Sadovskaia K, Aghahosseini A, Child M, Gulagi A, Oyewo AS, Barbosa LD, Breyer C. Radical transformation pathway towards sustainable electricity via evolutionary steps. Nature communications. 2019 Mar 6;10(1):1077. Available: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-08855-1
If you’re reading this, you are consuming electricity. Regardless of your device, and whether it is currently plugged in, it requires electricity to function. Mechanically-generated electricity has generally relied on fossil fuels, which are a finite resource.
Renewable resources, like sunlight and wind, exist in a practically unlimited amount. Using them to generate electricity also pollutes far less than using fossil fuels. In this way, renewable electricity can help mitigate the rampant pollution, greenhouse gases, and climate change associated with using fossil fuels to generate electricity.
However, not all parts of the world are equally well-suited for renewable electricity generation. For example, some parts of the world are too densely populated for wind turbines to be a practical solution (turbines require large amounts of open land). Other parts of the world don’t have enough sunny days for solar electricity to be viable. Finally, at the moment, renewable electricity costs more to produce than fossil fuel-produced electricity. This is due to the differences in the scale of renewable and non-renewable energy generation systems (renewable is, for now, far smaller). Other contributors to this higher cost of renewable electricity are higher prices for the necessary technology and higher building costs.
That said, the cost of renewable energy is steadily decreasing, with its increasing usage. But fossil fuels are still used to produce 65% of all the electricity generated on Earth.
Given the huge negative environmental impact of fossil fuel-produced electricity, a global shift toward renewable energy is imperative in order to slow the process of climate change.
But is such a shift even possible, and if so, on what timetable? An article by Dmitrii Bogdanov and colleagues recently published in Nature Communications shows that it is indeed possible to shift to 100% renewable electricity on a global scale. The predictive model described by the authors show that this could happen by 2050. However, that shift will have to occur incrementally, and implementation across countries and regions will vary.
The Current Situation:
The populated/habitable areas of Earth are not the same. Biomes and climate varies widely, as do population density, lifestyle, living arrangements, technology, and electrical infrastructure. Local societal and political attitudes also differ. All these factors influence, in a given area, how much electricity is consumed and how it is produced.
Renewable energy is currently used to generate about 35% of the electricity on Earth. Leading renewable sources of electricity are hydropower (16% of total generated electricity from all sources), wind energy (4%), and solar (1.2%). Hydro power has a longer history of use for electricity generation, but the use of solar and wind energy has increased much faster than hydro power over the last decade or so because the necessary technology and parts for successful solar and wind energy-based electricity generation has become cheaper and more accessible.
The (Predicted) Future:
Sunlight and wind exist (in some form) and can be used to generate electricity essentially everywhere on earth. Therefore, the potential amounts of electricity that can be generated from solar and wind is staggeringly high . For example, the authors’ computer simulation predicts that the amount of electricity produced by solar energy in 2050 will be 100 times that of 2015, while that of wind power will be around 8 times that of 2015.
The authors’ computer simulation, which took into account current data and other predictive models, showed that solar energy-based electricity generation will have to be increased in many areas that are currently dependent on fossil fuel-based electricity generation – South and Northeast Asia, for example.
However, solar energy can only be used to generate electricity when the sun is out (meaning during the day), unlike wind or hydro-power, which can operate around the clock. Sufficient storage – batteries – for solar-based electricity is a necessity for a properly-functioning electrical system. The authors’ computer simulation, again using multiple data points and the current reality, predicts drastic improvements in battery capability and huge reductions in battery cost. We’re already seeing the early stages of this, with battery-powered cars becoming simultaneously cheaper and more capable.
Overall, helped in part by decreasing costs and increasing capabilities, the cost of electricity generation in 2050 from renewable sources is expected to be about 25% lower than that of 2015 from all sources.
Why Is This Important?
The authors are able – using their computer simulation, the current reality, and some reasonable assumptions about the future – to show that a global shift to 100% renewable electricity is possible by 2050. This would greatly reduce the pollution, greenhouse gases, and global warming currently associated with electricity generation. However, this will not be an easy process or transition. Coordinated, region- and nation-specific steps to improve and install electricity generation and storage infrastructure will be required, along with governmental cooperation and commitment to a decades-long process timeline. Lastly, societal attitudes to such a momentous change will need to remain (or become) favorable. This is the toughest part of the computer simulation to predict, because it’s the most fickle. Human emotions aren’t necessarily predictable or algorithmic or monolithic.
All that said, the authors have shown a clear path by which this paradigm shift to 100% renewable electricity can occur – as long as we, and our planet, can make it to 2050 .