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How fast is the world moving to renewable energy?


Warning: Contains statics.

The renewable energy revolution is getting quite a lot of media attention at the moment as people look for good news stories to balance out the dire news about global warming and the world having about a decade to make serious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. But what is actually happening on the renewable energy front? How fast is the world moving to renewable energy? Will renewables cut emissions in time to make a difference to global warming?

The short answer to these questions is we are moving very quickly to 100% renewable energy and we will get there before 2040 if we can maintain current growth rates.  So, while we might not make it to 100% renewable energy in one decade (there is a bit of uncertainty on the timeline) but after we do it is possible that any excess renewable energy could be used to power 'negative emissions technology', that is, the 'Hail Mary' technology being developed to suck CO2 from the atmosphere in the future.  The long answer to these questions is as follows.  

The fact that global warming and renewable energy has become so politicised really doesn't help getting a clear picture of where we are at and, it is fair to say, even the best reports on renewable energy don't give a very clear picture either; they provide mountains of good data but often forget to give the overall picture of where renewable energy is headed.  This article aims to clarify that picture.

Before we go any further a point needs to be clarified here; when we talk about energy we are talking about primary energy which is different to electricity (26% of electricity is powered by renewables), which makes up just 20% of primary energy.  To truly tackle emissions we need 100% renewable energy not just 100% renewable electricity. 

Ok so first things first exactly how much renewable energy do we have now?    Well the 2019 REN21 global renewable status report (which is perhaps the best source for this data) puts renewable energy at 18.1% (of a global yearly energy consumption of 160 Peta Watt hours or PWh) which sounds great until you realise that "renewable energy" in this definition is made up of 10.6% "modern renewables" and 7.5 % "traditional biomass" aka burning wood.  "Modern renewables" includes: wind, solar, hydro, solar thermal, bio-fuel etc where wind and solar PV make up 1% each of primary energy. 

Right so how fast is "modern renewable energy" growing... 4.5%; the burning wood part of primary energy (7.5%) is fortunately not growing at all.  The background to this 4.5% growth is that overall energy consumption growing 1.5% and fossil fuel energy growing 1.4%.  So from this we can see that fossil fuel energy is slowly but surely losing primary energy share (despite it having double the subsidy funding that renewable energy has).  But is that the whole picture?

Well no, and the whole picture seems to be very well buried in most reports (for some reason) because the wind and solar PV parts of "modern renewables" (currently at 1% of primary energy each) are growing at 12.6 and 28.9% respectively.  These growth rates are incredibly rapid. To put it in perspective, if the growth rate in solar PV was maintained for 19 years 100%+ of primary energy would be provided by solar PV.

Whether these rates of growth can be maintain is unknown, but due to the distributed nature of solar PV and wind, and the fact that wind turbines and solar PV modules can be made in any country, high rates of growth are possible with the right policy settings by the various national governments. Perhaps the rate of growth in wind could be even faster than it is now, which would mean 100% renewable energy within a 15-20 year time frame.

There is another factor that is inexplicably missing (or buried) in these reports and that is the fact that as primary energy moves to electricity, that is, as electricity supplies a greater and greater portion of primary energy going from 20% today to near 100% in the future, opportunities exist for massive efficiency gains.  Primary energy is currently used in the following three broad categories: 50% heating and cooling (which includes industrial processes where heat is required), 30% transport (planes, trains and automobiles) and 20% electricity (gizmos, gadgets, appliances, machinery).

The thing to realise here is that as these three categories are more and more dominated by electricity, that is, all transport, heating and cooling are electrified, opportunities exist for at least a factor 4 reduction in energy used.  Which means the 160 PWh we currently use each year shrinks to more like 40 PWh. Now of course it might never reach that level of efficiency (or it might exceed it) but what that means is we can attack the problem from both ends and speed up the transition to 100% renewable energy even faster.

The take away message from looking at the data is that the renewable energy supply roll-out is happening fast and electrification of all energy services can give it a turbo boost, if we put the pedal to the metal we could get to 100% renewable energy worldwide by 2040 if not sooner. If we keep a rapid renewable energy roll-out and electrification of services as our clear goal there is every reason to believe the future will be bright and the worst of climate change will be avoided. 

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