REN21 renewables report finds strong hope for 100% renewable

A new report by multi-stakeholder renewable energy policy network REN21 released this week finds that the majority of global experts on energy are confident that the world can transition to a 100% renewable energy future by the midway point of this century.

However, confidence in the feasibility of this transition wavers from region to region, and there is near-universal belief that sectors such as transport have some catching up to do if their future is to be 100% clean.

The report, titled REN21 Renewables Global Futures, posited 12 debate topics to 114 renowned energy experts drawn from all four corners of the globe. The intention was to spur and trigger debate about the key challenges facing renewable energy, and was careful to include renewable energy skeptics as part of those surveyed.

No forecasts or projections were made; rather, the experts’ answers and opinions were collated in order to form a coherent picture of where people believe the energy future is headed. The most noteworthy response was that gleaned from Question 1: “100% renewables – a logical consequence of the Paris Agreement?” To this, more than 70% of respondents believed that the world can be 100% powered by renewable energy by 2050, with European and Australian experts most strongly supporting this view.

In general there was an “overwhelming consensus” that renewables will dominate the power sector, with experts noting that even large international corporation are now increasingly opting for renewable energy products either from utilities of through direct investment.

Around 70% of experts interviewed were confident that the cost of renewables will continue to fall, and will easily undercut the cost of all fossil fuels by 2027. Equally, the majority are confident that GDP growth can be decoupled from increasing energy consumption, with countries as diverse as Denmark and China cited as examples of nations that have been able to reduce consumption of energy yet still enjoy economic growth.

Main challenges identified
Optimism at a cleaner future among those 114 experts was tempered with the usual servings of restraint, particularly among some voices in Japan, the U.S. and Africa where skepticism over these regions’ ability to fully function on 100% renewable energy was rife. Particularly, the vested interests of the conventional energy industry were cited as tough and obdurate obstacles to wider clean energy uptake.

As for transport, a “modal shift” is required to fully alter that sector’s clean energy trajectory, the report found. The replacement of combustion engines with electric drives will not be sufficient to transform the sector, most experts believe, whereas a wider embrace of rail-based rather than road-based transport will have a more comprehensive impact. Few, though, believe that this is likely.

And as ever, many experts were critical of governments that failed to deliver long-term policy certainty for renewable investment – a failing of leadership seen as far and wide as the U.K. and the U.S., through to sub-Saharan Africa and South America.

“This report presents a wide range of expert opinions, and is meant to spur discussion and debate about both the opportunities and challenges of achieving a 100% renewable energy future by mid-century,” said REN21 executive secretary Christine Lins. “Wishful thinking won’t get us there; only by fully understanding the challenges and engaging in informed debate about how to overcome them, can governments adopt the right policies and financial incentives to accelerate the pace of deployment.”

REN21 chair Arthouros Zervos added that few would have believed back in 2004 (when REN21 was founded) that by 2016 renewable energy would account for 86% of all new EU power installations, or that China would be the world’s foremost clean energy power. “Calls then for 100% renewable energy were not taken seriously,” said Zervos. “Today, the world’s leading energy experts are engaged in rational discussions about its feasibility, and in what time frame.”

Additional findings
The report’s ’12 debates’ touched upon a range of topics, most notably asking about a 100% renewable energy future, but also the following: how can global energy demand and energy efficiency be better aligned; is it ‘winner takes all’ when it comes to renewable power generation; will electrical heating supersede thermal; how much market share will electric vehicles claim; is storage a competitor or supporter of the power grid; the possibilities of mega cities, and renewables’ ability to improve energy access for all.

The 114 polled experts were drawn from across the globe, and the REN21 report grouped their average responses by region. This is how each regions’ experts responded:

  • For Africa, the most obvious consensus was that the energy access debate still overshadows the 100% renewable energy debate.
  • In Australia and Oceania the key takeaway was that there is high expectations for 100% renewables.
  • Chinese experts believe that some regions of China can achieve 100% renewables, but believe that this is an overly ambitious goal globally.
  • Europe’s main concern is ensuring strong support for 100% renewables to fight climate change.
  • In India, the 100% renewables debate is still ongoing, with half of those polled believing the target to be unlikely by 2050.
  • For the Latam region, the debate about 100% renewable has not yet begun, with far more pressing matters currently on the table.
  • Japan’s space constraints are lowering expectations about the possibility of 100% renewables, the experts in the country said.
  • In the U.S. there is strong scepticism about 100% renewables with only two out of eight experts confident that it can happen.
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