How Long Till Renewables Power the World, Not Just Electrify It?

I recently wrote about the exponential growth of renewables as sources of global electricity. The outlook is fairly bright, so to speak, with the data suggesting that by 2037 the vast majority of the electrical grid will be powered by renewables.

Whether that turns out to be true or not, however, it only looks at a proportion of all energy usage. After all, we know that electricity is just a subset of energy, although we often think of them as one in the same.

In 2021, for example, the world produced 28,214.07 terawatt hours of electricity. In the same year, the world consumed 176,432 terawatt hours of energy. Therefore, electricity represents just 16% of the total energy consumed. Creating a carbon-free clean energy grid is not half the battle. It’s only 16% of it. Our global energy reticulum is much vaster.

IF Renewable Exponential Growth, THEN….

But that 16% figure may not be as depressing at it sounds. Let’s assume that the solar/wind duo continue to double the amount of energy they produce every four years or so.

Now I know this figure may be not conservative enough or may be too conservative. After all, renewable technologies such a wave and tidal energy may start to come into their own during this period, shrinking the periods that represent exponential growth of renewables.

Also, although they’re not renewable per se, non-carbon sources of energy such as modular nuclear fission plants or even nuclear fusion plants may also emerge as a significant source of energy.

But even just sticking with solar and wind energy, if the total amount produced by these sources (which are already the cheapest sources of electricity on the market) double every four years, then they will be able to produce 345,822.4 terawatt hours (TWh) worth of energy by the year 2049. This is, of course, far more than the 176,432 TWh of energy consumed in 2021.

That may also be far more energy than the world needs if, as has happened in the United States since 2009, global energy consumption largely plateaus.

Who’s Right?

If exponential growth of renewables continues, then perhaps folks like author Bjørn Lomborg–who still claims wind and solar energy are a “somewhat boutique” form of energy and that fossil fuels will still account for 70% of energy consumption in 2050–will turn out to be badly mistaken. And not just Lomborg, who seems to be citing data from the U.S. Department of Energy: By current DOE estimates, 75% of U.S. energy will come from fossil fuels in 2050.

Time Is Gonna Tell

Based on the trends we’re currently seeing, my guess is that Lomborg and those DOE projections will turn out to be quite wrong. They fail to take into account the exponential growth projections of renewables. They also neglect other trendlines related to technological innovation, price-driven market forces, and the political will galvanized if and when there are alarming increases in drought and/or a dramatic uptick in the number of heat-related deaths.

On the other hand, what do I know? Some of these folks have spent a lot of time thinking about these trends, so maybe they’ll be right. Or at least closer to right than I’ll be.

Still, I choose to be hopeful. Sure, fossil fuels will be around for the next three decades, but I doubt that they’ll play anything like the outsized role in energy production they do today. (Though they’ll continue a play a role in others areas such as plastics and fertilizer production).

Or, if they do continue to play a large energy role, it will be because they transform fossil fuels into greener fuels (e.g., hydrogen) in ways that somehow capture most of the carbon in the refining process.

Watching the Milestones

We are, of course, already making considerable progress. Scientific American just reported, “Wind and solar output are up 18 percent through Nov. 20 compared to the same time last year and have grown 58 percent compared to 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The government energy tracker predicts that wind, solar and hydro will generate 22 percent of U.S. electricity by the end of this year. That is more than coal at 20 percent and nuclear at 19 percent.”

I should note that 18% annual growth in U.S. renewables gets us very close to a doubling every four years, and this most recent growth occurred before the implementation of the new climate bill.

But how about those longer term predictions? Well, we may not need to wait 30 years to get a clue about them. For example, we should be able to make short-term predications that, if they are relatively accurate, foreshadow longer-term trends. So, here are a couple of markers to hit if we are on a fast track for a low carbon world:

  • By the end of the year 2025, we should see solar and wind accounting for about 5,400 TWh of power globally.
  • By the year 2030 or there abouts we should see solar and wind accounting for about 10,800 TWh of power globally.

Even if we hit those markers, of course, there’s no telling when the S-curve is going to slow things down. And, if the green energy storage problems aren’t figured out and the NIMBY folks stop the growth of more transmission lines, then there could be a backlash against renewables as an undependable energy source. Or, if there is a conflict between the U.S. and China, which makes the lion’s share of solar panels today, then that could throw off the whole global trend.

Choosing Optimism

I know that “hope is not a plan,” but I am considerably more optimistic since the passage of the poorly named Inflation Reduction Act, which is the most important climate bill in U.S. history. I am not, of course, expecting miracles. But the fact that they passed it at all suggests to me that the corporations that hinge on “green” business models finally have enough economic clout and political prestige to help push such legislation over the finish line.

Then there’s the China factor. China is quickly cornering the market on green technologies and U.S. politicians are finally waking up to the fact that this is the near-term future of the global economy.

So, yeah, I am more optimistic because of my jaded perspective that our dismayingly unrepresentative, sold-to-the-highest-bidder political system is finally scenting the smell of the newly minted dollars printed by green(ish) corporations the world over.

Sure, Exxon and company will stay in business. But at least some balance is being struck in our economic and political hallways of power. With any luck, we might all be the beneficiaries of a saner, greener world over the next three decades, though I’m not fool enough to think we don’t yet have a long, long way to go.

Featured image:  Utah solar; a photovoltaic power station; August 2, 2017, Author Photo by Reegan Moen. – U.S. Department of Energy from United States