While weather extremes seem to become normal, the climate and energy debate circles around decarbonisation of our daily lives. The Paris agreement to limit global temperature significantly below +2C requires nothing short of a global energy revolution – a complete decarbonisation of the energy sector by the mid of this century. Is this possible? What do global energy experts around the world think? And if it’s possible, what does it take to change?
REN21 – the Renewable Energy Network for the 21st Century – a Paris based global renewable energy policy multi-stakeholder network that connects public and private sectors – asked the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) at the University of Technology Sydney to do a detailed 1-year research project. The ISF coordinated a global network of Universities and think tanks that included interviews of 114 renowned energy experts from every region of the world. The findings are clustered under 12 different topics and have been published in a report published in New York at the UN Sustainable Energy 4 All conference early April.
- 100% Renewables: A logical consequence of the Paris Agreement? Not yet. While over 70 % of all experts agreed that 100% renewables are realistic and feasible, there was no consensus whether or not the climate treaty actually requires 100% renewables.
- Global Energy Demand Development: Efficiency on a global level? Sure, everybody agrees that energy efficiency is a must. But what’s the next step? What policies were successful in the past, what needs to be done in the future and how much energy will the world need in 2050? The opinions vary significantly, but the majority believes – stunning 80% – that the demand will increase by not more than 30%. In the past, many experts expect doubling, but economies as diverse as Denmark and China showed that economic growth and energy demand growth can be decoupled.
- Renewable Power Generation: The winner takes all? Solar photovoltaic and wind power are the stars of the global energy sector over the past decade and both technologies start to have a serious impact on conventional energy technologies: They are simply cheaper than all other power generation technology. As a result, other renewables are under serious pressure. But all experts agreed that it takes the whole range of renewable technologies if the world will move to a complete decarbonisation.
- The Future of Heating: Thermal or electrical applications? Directly related with the solar and wind success is the increased use of electric heating appliances. But whether or not this trend continues, or thermal renewables – like solar water heating – will dominate the heating sector is still undecided. The race is still open.
- Renewables for Transport: Electrification versus biofuels? As opposed to the heating sector, the race is not really open for future technologies for private vehicles. There was a universal consensus, that the future will be a electrification, while biofuels will be required for aviation and shipping. The later sectors however are hardly debated and require R+D.
- Interconnection of Sectors: System thinking required! If the world moves towards 100% renewables, we need to break down the walls between the “silos” power, heating and transport. The sector will grow together, that was again almost a consensus. But how this will be implemented with the right policies remains unclear.
- Storage: Supporter or competitor of the power grid? Everybody talks about Lithium batteries, but will this the only storage technology? No. Again, experts agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all technology. A whole range of different storage technologies are required for different purposes – from second reserve to seasonal storage.
- Technology versus Costs: Which should come first? While everybody talks about the costs, fewer people talk about technology. A technology that is very expensive today could be the best solution for the future. Solar photovoltaic is a brilliant example. Once a luxury technology – now one of the cheapest options: Why? Because some governments focused on R+D and market implementation as solar pv was seen as a key technology. It was the right decision.
- Scaling-up Investments and Work Force: 100% renewables for socio-economic change.
While experts agreed that it is close to impossible to predict future fossil fuel prices, and therefore price volatility is a major issue for fossil fuels, renewable cost predictions proved to be very reliable over the past decade and with only one direction: down. Thus 2/3 of all experts expect the renewable industry to at least double in terms of investment volume while workforce is expected to quadruple to the size of the current global automobile industry.
- Utilities of the Future: What will they look like? The short answer is, not like today. But nobody seems to have the ultimate suggestion for a business model for future utilities either. Finding such a business model is the “Holly-Grale” of the global power sector at the moment.
- Mega Cites: Mega possibilities. While renewable become more common in rural areas, renewable energy technologies are still quite rare in bigger cities. However almost half of all experts believe that renewables can play a significant role in the supply of megacities –even in a space constrained environment. Innovation required!
- Energy Access Enabled Through Renewables: How to speed up connections? The debate about access to energy services focused on rural households in the past, this needs to change was the view of most energy experts. Developing countries also want to power economic growth and renewables could deliver also for industrial supply. However specific concepts and know-how is required to assist developing countries.
While there are quite a lot of open questions, the research made clear that the train left the station and that we are already on our way to a renewable energy supplied world. A surprisingly large percentage trusts renewables as a main global energy supply option – this view was rather exotic just 5 years ago: Maybe one of the most encouraging outcomes of this research.
Dr. Sven Teske is research principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney and lead author of this research.