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IPCC Report on Renewable Energy

Posted on 22 June 2011 by dana1981, MartinS

The IPCC Working Group III recently released a Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN).  The purpose of this report is to provide an assessment and thorough analysis of renewable energy technologies and their current and potential role in the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.  The report focused on what is technically and economically feasible.

Among the most significant conclusions in the report is that we could meet as much as 43% of global energy demand with renewable sources by 2030, and up to 77% by 2050 (renewable energies accounted for 13% in 2008), although based on the bulk of the 164 scenarios examined, closer to 30% renewable penetration appears more realistic.  Certain individuals have attempted to manufacture controversy about the 77% renewable penetration scenario (see the associated McManufactured Controversy' post), but in reality it's not even a terribly aggressive target from a technological standpoint.  For example, we have previously discussed the Ecofys plan to meet 100% of global energy demand with renewables by 2050, and the Jacobsen and Delucchi plan to meet 100% of demand with just wind, water, and solar energy in 2050 (also see the Advanced rebuttal to "Renewables can't provide baseload power").  Compared to those plans, a 77% goal is relatively muted.  It may be unrealistic from a political standpoint, but that question is beyond the scope of this report.

According to SRREN, renewables are already developing rapidly.  Of the 300 gigawatts (GW) of new electricity-generating power plants added globally from 2008 to 2009, nearly half (140 GW) came from renewable sources. In the European Union, the share of renewable to total energy installment was even higher, at 62%.

The report also found that global availability and obtainability of renewable energy will not limit continued growth, because the global technical potential exceeds the primary energy use, which was 492 exajoules (EJ = 1018 Joules) in 2008 (Table 1).

technical potential

Table 1: Global technical potential from various renewable energy sources

SRREN found that sufficient investments in renewable energy to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels at 440 ppm (approximately corresponding to the 'danger limit' of 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels) would cost approximately $5.1 trillion from 2011 to 2020 and $7.2 trillion from 2021 to 2030, globally.  Although it sounds like a large amount of money, this represents less than 1% of the global gross domestic product (GDP).

The report also notes that as we have previously discussed, the external costs of coal combustion (primarily due to health impacts and climate change), which are not currently reflected in the market price of coal power, increase the true cost of coal several times over.   The external costs of renewable energy sources are much lower (Figure 1). While the external costs for coal fired power plants are at least 7.2 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), they are less than 0.2 cents/kWh for wind turbines. If the external damages are considered costs of wind energy are likely cheaper than those of coal energy (Jacobson and Masters 2001).

IPCC externalities

Figure 1: Illustration of external costs due to the lifecycle of electricity production based on renewable energy and fossil energy. Note the logarithmic scale of the figure. The blue lines indicate the range of the external cost due to climate change and the red lines indicate the range of the external costs due to air pollutant health effects.

An argument that many "skeptics" like to make (including John Christy) is that historically, economic development has been strongly correlated with increasing energy use and growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  This is true, since the majority of energy production has historically come from fossil fuels.  Thus, the "skeptics" argue,  transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable energy will cripple the economic growth of developing nations. 

However, this is simply a logical fallacy.  Economic growth correlates well with energy use, but there's no reason that energy has to come from fossil fuels.  It's just that historically, the market price (though not the actual net cost) of fossil fuels has been very low.  However, the SRREN notes that renewable energy can help decouple that correlation between economic growth and GHG emissions, contributing to sustainable development.  Another key to meeting increasing energy mands from developing countries with renewable power is the rapidly decreasing cost of these technologies, particularly solar photovoltaic (Figure 2).

IPCC renewable price

Figure 2: Decreasing average price of solar PV and wind as global installed capacity of these technologies has grown

Of course it's not all sunshine and rainbows.  Meeting the $5.1 trillion global renewable energy investment from 2011 to 2020 will require a five-fold increase from current investment levels.  And of course there is the political challenge involved in implementing the necessary policies to allow this renewable energy investment increase to happen.  For example, putting a price on carbon emissions, which will more accurately reflect the true cost of fossil fuel combustion in their market price, and make renewable energy more financially competetive.  However, even though doing so would be economically beneficial, as the SRREN notes, there is a great deal of political resistance to implementing a carbon price in many countries.

To sum up, in this report the IPCC finds that we can give ourselves a chance to keep global warming below the 'danger limit' with an investment of less than 1% of global GDP in renewable energy.  This will also help us de-couple economic development from GHG emissions, and in fact will benefit the economy by avoiding the harm to public health and the climate associated with burning fossil fuels.  However, accomplishing this major transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will be very challenging, particularly from a political standpoint in terms of implementing the necessary policies.

NOTE: We have also written a sister post regarding the McManufactured Controversy associated with SRREN

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Comments 51 to 56 out of 56:

  1. Unlike nuclear, wind & solar do not require exclusive use of the land.
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  2. And offshore wind requires no land !
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  3. Many sources of renewable energy are already comparable to subsidized coal on a price per kw-h basis. Small-Scale Hydro, Biomass Gas, Geothermal & On-Shore Wind.....and most of them take up very little land compared to coal. Even CSP & Photovoltaic Power are falling fairly rapidly. Yet Coal continues to have an unfair advantage because-in Australia for example-land rehabilitation & disposal of fly-ash waste are paid for by State Governments, they get free access to roads & rail, they get cheap water & a diesel fuel rebate. Without these subsidies, I doubt they could offer electricity for the price they currently do. I'd also say that subsidies are very important for relatively new industries-if only to help them achieve the economies of scale needed to get price reductions. My question is why should the coal & oil industry-both of whom are incredibly profitable-continue to receive significant tax-payer subsidies when it gives them such an unfair advantage in the energy market?
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  4. Here's an interesting quote to put Quokka's claims about land use into perspective: "Based on current mining techniques, Mr. Nace says a solar thermal plant can produce 18 gigawatt hours per acre of land over a 60 year period; whereas a coal-fired power plant will generate 15 gigawatt hours per acre of mined land . This does not take into account the space required for toxic by-products such as fly ash. Compared to solar thermal, the land footprint of coal is about 20 percent greater." and this: "While in the US mining companies are obligated to perform restorative work after exhausting an area of coal, Nace says that this rarely occurs." Once again I wonder how much more coal would cost if these mining companies *did* have to pay for land rehabilitation?
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  5. Land rehabilitation?, what about river and stream rehabilitation? And what the heck does 'rehabilitation' really mean anyway?, it can't realistically be rehabilitated. Those areas will be stuffed for generations. I really do hate it when polluters try to minimize the damage they cause by using weasel words.
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  6. Hey Rob, I'm totally with you on this-trust me. I was simply making the point that the coal industry-both in the US & Australia-rarely even *try* to rehabilitate the land they destroy, which is one of the reasons their costs are so low. Now they want to risk polluting our ground water by switching to *fracking*! Time to send this dinosaur of an industry into extinction!
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