How Feasible is 100% Renewable Energy?

A question of political will

The end of the year saw a few new studies on the costs of moving the world to 100% renewable energy. They’ve been generating some buzz in the green energy internet about how long it will take, and how much it will cost, to accomplish a full energy transition. While everyone agrees that renewable energy is a must, there’s some disagreement about how to get there—and how much it will cost.

The first study, which was released by the German non-profit Energy Watch Group (EWG) and Finland’s Lapreenta University of Technology to coincide with the Bonn energy summit, states unequivocally that we can meet the entire globe’s energy demands with renewables. The authors of the study found that wind, solar, hydroelectric, and biofuel power, combined with recent advances in storing electricity, will be sufficient to meet the world’s energy needs, and soon. By 2050, they say, powering the world with only renewable energy will be “feasible at every hour throughout the year.”

The EWG study says that the switch is not only possible, but cheaper than our current energy mix. It estimates that energy costs after the transition will average $61 per megawatt-hour, compared to $82 per megawatt-hour in 2015. So what’s the hold up? It’s “no longer a question of technical feasibility or economic viability, but of political will” says lead author Christian Breyer.

Hidden costs

However, another pair of studies, by the financial advisory firm Lazard, are less optimistic. These studies (one on the levelized cost of energy, the other on the levelized cost of storage) claims that, while the cost of renewable energy continues to drop compared to conventional modes of generation, renewable’s cost decreases are leveling out. Factoring in the cost of storing renewably generated electricity, the Lazard study says, means that renewables are still more expensive than energy from conventional sources like oil, gas, and nuclear power. The authors conclude that “alternative energy systems alone will not be capable of meeting the baseload generation needs of a developed economy.”

Those who doubt that renewable energy alone can meet economic requirements suggest that we will rely on nuclear and hydroelectric power to produce energy while cutting the C02 emissions that come from burning fossil fuels. But nuclear plants and large dams have their own hidden costs—each comes with serious environmental concerns, and nuclear power in particular risks catastrophic accidents.

Roadmaps for the future

third study, released earlier in 2017 by The Solutions Project, not only found that 100% renewable energy by 2050 is within reach, but also created detailed plans outlining the energy transition for 139 countries. Like the EWG study, the findings from this report show that renewable energy will be cheaper per megawatt-hour than our current energy mix. The Solutions Project also found that the transition to 100% renewable energy will generate 36 million jobs worldwide.

The small, but slowly growing, consensus that renewable energy is both necessary and feasible is at least a bright spot in recent environment and energy news. Read more about the EWG and Solutions Project studies here.

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