Renewable energy demands the undoable

The world needs to increase wind turbine installation rates 37-fold in 13 years.
Image: Paul Anderson via Wikimedia Commons

Switching to renewable energy as fast as the world needs to will require changes so massive that they are unlikely to happen, scientists say.

LONDON, 27 March, 2016 – The world is increasingly investing in renewable energy. Last year, according to UN figures, global investment in solar power, wind turbines and other renewable forms of energy was $266 billion.  

This was more than double the investment of $130bn in coal and gas power stations in 2015. It sets a new investment record and brings spending on renewable energy since 2004 to a total, adjusted for inflation, of $2.3 trillion.

And, says the United Nations Environment Programme’s report on Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016, that same push added 134 gigawatts (one gigawatt is reckoned enough to supply the needs of 750,000 typical US homes) of renewable power worldwide.

It also spared the atmosphere the burden of an estimated 1.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (human activities, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use, add an extra 29 gigatonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere annually).

Not enough

But right now, the report says, renewable energy sources deliver just 10.3% of global electrical power. Neither the report’s authors nor anyone else thinks that is enough to slow climate change driven by rising global temperatures as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

In the last century, this has already climbed by 1°C. In Paris in December 2015, 195 nations agreed on a global plan to limit global warming to a figure no more than 2°C above the long-term average for most of human history.

This will be difficult, according to Glenn Jones, professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University in the US.

“It would require rates of change in our energy infrastructure and energy mix that have never happened in world history and that are extremely unlikely to be achieved,” he says.

In 2015, the world installed the equivalent of 13,000 five-megawatt wind turbines. But to contain global warming to a figure less than 2°C nations would have to ramp up renewable investment by 2028 to the annual equivalent of 485,000 such wind turbines.

“That’s a 37-fold increase in the annual installation rate in only 13 years just to achieve the wind power goal,” Professor Jones said.

“Fifty per cent of our energy will need to come from renewable sources by 2028, and today it is only 9% . . . For a world that wants to fight climate change, the numbers just don’t add up to do it”

He and a colleague argue in the journal Energy Policy that during each hour of every day 3.7 million barrels of oil are pumped from wells; 932,000 tons of coal are dug; 395 million cubic metres of natural gas are piped from the ground; and 4.1 million tons of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

In that same hour, another 9,300 people are added to the global population. By 2100, the world will be home to 11 billion of us.

“So the question becomes, how will they be fed and housed and what will be their energy source? Currently 1.2 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity, and there are plans to try to get them on the grid. The numbers you start dealing with become so large that they are difficult to comprehend,” Professor Jones says.

“To even come close to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, 50% of our energy will need to come from renewable sources by 2028, and today it is only 9%, including hydropower. For a world that wants to fight climate change, the numbers just don’t add up to do it.” – Climate News Network

8 thoughts on “Renewable energy demands the undoable”

  1. Michael Powers

    This issue is not just how much capacity is put into place but also how it is interconnected. China’s largest electric utility just announced plans to develop a global energy grid — an energy internet. This effort is being duplicated with regional projects all over the world. I would keep my eye on those efforts, as they grow geometrically and not in a linear way.

  2. Kevin

    It took more than the energy sector to create the problem; it will take more than a single sector to ameliorate it. This continual Eyore approach will not get the issue addressed. It simply discourages further efforts since it plays into the defeatist rhetoric that is all too common. Solutions like the Stanford study for a state-by-state prescription of how the US could viably migrate to renewable energy should be considered globally.

  3. Bob Platt

    This does not take into account reduction in demand due to greater efficiency. That needs to be emphasised just as much as the change to renewables.

  4. John Weber

    One of the proposals of this ilk was by Jacobson.
    Jacobson’s first paper proposed:
    Starting in 2012 for 50% of the world’s energy we would need:
    2111112 machines a year for 18 years
    which is over 578 machines a day for 18 years

    which is over 24 each hour, each day, 7 days a week for 18 years
    (Note that is for only 50% of the energy needs.)

    In an email discussion with the second author he proposed that since we do it with cars; we can do it with “renewables”. So all the mining, processing, manufacturing, transporting, installing, two or three times a year maintenance. This is green? This is sustainable? This is renewable? This is business as usual as usual.

  5. Hugh Spencer

    It’s crazy – the great tragedy is that we seem to want to continue Business as Usual – except with renewable energy. Two issues never get mentioned – the need to power down and to really work at population reduction – the ‘unspeakable’ requirements (to say nothing of adapting to the realities of global warming) ! – I suggest readers get a copy of “The New Confessions of and Economic Hit Man” (John Perkins) – to see the post war dynamics that have driven us to this point – and don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon – thanks to the neo-conservative take over of business and Governments around the world. Environment? what’s that?!!

  6. Todd Cory

    these behemoths rely on an unsustainable, fossil fuel powered industrial infrastructure to mine, manufacture, ship, assemble, and maintain. i would not consider them renewable. rather they greenwash non-negotiable lifestyles. on a finite planet, facing overconsumption, overpopulation, resource depletion and the associated environmental consequences, the only solution to the “limits to growth” is to radically curtail human breeding and consumption.

  7. J4Zonian

    ” By 2100, the world will be home to 11 billion of us.”

    No, by 2050 it’s widely expected that the population will have stabilized at about 8.9 billion. But those estimates don’t take into account the almost certain acceleration in the death rate caused by climate catastrophe and the larger eco-psycho-political crisis. We’ll probably peak earlier and sooner.

    “Switching to renewable energy as fast as the world needs to will require changes so massive that they are unlikely to happen, scientists say.”

    So some scientists say it’s unlikely that such a rapid increase in renewable installation will happen. It doesn’t say it can’t happen. Are any of these scientists political scientists? Can any of them tell the future? If not, maybe they should take a little more care in how they word such pronouncements, and make sure they aren’t fomenting despair without good reason.

    Political reality changes constantly and sometimes, almost overnight. December 8, 1941 looked a lot different politically in the US than the morning of December 7th. The country accelerated its war production more than 37 times, not in 37 years but in 3. It’s people built thousands of times as many planes, tanks, ships, artillery pieces, trucks and jeeps and other equipment as it had the 3 years before, and outfitted millions in its own army and others’. The country did what it had to, and could have done more if it had been required; it’s people didn’t suffer nearly as much as the Soviet people, English, French, Germans or Japanese did.

    The world’s industrial capacity is many times what it was then, survival depends on cooperation rather than conflict, and there’s no industrial, technical, technological , logistical or other physical reason to believe anything other than that we can do what we need to. Corporations, rich people and governments certainly don’t want to; It’s up to us to convince them to get out of our way.

  8. Geoff Smith

    Canada’s newly elected prime minister recently suggested that the construction of a pipeline from Alberta (tar sands) to either the Pacific coast or the Atlantic coast would generate revenues that the government could invest in renewable energy. His argument actually implied that a switch to renewable energies would not be possible without the pipeline revenues. I don’t understand this position coming from a country that was so involved at COP21.

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