People often ask me if I think there is any hope that the world can transition to clean, renewable energy fast enough to avoid the deadly and damaging impacts of a rapidly warming planet. I say yes.
That’s despite the popular belief that we are doomed because many politicians, for a variety of reasons, don’t want to let go of fossil fuels. As such, they continue to support non-renewables and give only lip service to clean, renewable energy, preventing a rapid transition.
There are also those who question the practicalities: for example, how to keep the supply grid stable with 100 per cent, as opposed to 80 per cent, clean, renewable energy.
Despite the naysaying, I remain optimistic that a complete transition can happen globally for several reasons.
First, knowledge is power. There are already at least 25 peer-reviewed papers showing different ways of achieving 100 per cent or near 100 per cent renewable electricity.
Our team at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, has been developing 100% clean, renewable energy roadmaps for states, countries and the world for about a decade.
This week, a new 27-author study in the inaugural issue of the sustainable energy journal Joule sets out roadmaps for 139 countries, representing more than 99 per cent of all emissions. These roadmaps quantify the costs and benefits of transitioning all forms of energy for all purposes to electricity – supplied by 80% wind, water and solar power (WWS) by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050. We present one WWS roadmap, but many other combinations of WWS technologies will work as well.
By all forms of energy, I mean electricity, transportation, heating, cooling, industry and more. The study found not only that this is possible in all 139 countries, but also that such roadmaps, if implemented, would bring major gains.
These gains include preventing almost all of the 4 to 7 million deaths caused each year by air pollution as well as hundreds of millions of cases of ill-health, such as lung disease.
Transitioning to 100% renewables would also provide over 24 million more permanent, full-time jobs than are lost and stabilize energy prices while reducing energy costs.
It would also reduce the risk of terrorism and catastrophe associated with large, centralised energy plants, improve access to power to billions of people in energy poverty, and reduce power demand by about 43 per cent – due primarily to the greater efficiency of electricity over combustion and the elimination of energy for the mining, transporting and refining of fossil fuels.
Importantly, moving to renewables would eliminate nearly all emissions associated with global warming. This could help us avoid reaching 1.5°C of warming this century, the Paris climate agreement’s most ambitious goal for avoiding climate disaster.
I am confident that it is technically and economically possible to transition the world.
We already have the technologies required and the costs of these have plummeted. Onshore wind and utility-scale solar photovoltaics are the least-expensive forms of new electric power in the US today. Hydroelectric and geothermal power costs are also low. Costs of offshore wind, concentrated solar power, rooftop photovoltaics, wave and tidal power are all dropping, as are various methods of storing off-peak surplus energy.
And the electric appliances and machines we’ll need – such as heat pumps, induction cooktop stoves, electric cars, LED lightbulbs, induction furnaces, dielectric heaters and arc furnaces – are all available and competitively priced.
A rapid transition is already underway in some places. More than 40 cities in the US and more than 100 major international businesses have committed to 100% clean, renewable energy. Several US states, including California, Hawaii, New York and Massachusetts, also have existing or proposed laws to get close to 100% in one or more sectors.
Countries such as Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Denmark and Germany have similarly increased their development or commitments to wind, water and solar and have set high goals for their contribution to overall energy supply. Even at the national level in the US, the House of Representatives and the Senate have proposed resolutions and bills for the country to go to 100 per cent clean, renewable energy for all purposes.
The final reason for being upbeat is that people want a transition. Opinion polls found that 60% of New Yorkers, 70% of people in New Jersey and 63% of Australians, supported a move to 100% clean, renewable energy.
This will only be possible with a massive increase (by a factor of 10 to 100) in public and private action around the world. Individuals and policy makers alike can play a part in this.
I believe that a transition can and will occur because most people will come together and see for themselves that it delivers substantial benefits.