Solving Climate Change by 2050: Renewable Energy is Critical But Not Enough (Part 3)

Life as we know it isn’t possible without electricity but fossil-fuel-generated electricity is threatening the planet’s climate and our future. Therefore, as I laid out in Part 1 of this series, the first prong of our six-pronged strategy for addressing climate change is to get almost all electricity from net-zero sources by 2050.

That goal is certainly formidable. Zero-carbon sources, mostly in the form of solar power, wind power, nuclear power, and hydropower, currently account for about 37% of all electricity generation. Getting those net-zero sources close to 100% by 2050 would eliminate 27% of the current problem for carbon emissions. (The table below breaks the sources of the other 73% of emissions as of 2019.)

Global Emissions (2019)

That’s only part of the challenge, however. We also need clean sources to fulfill the many new demands for electricity. Projections are that the world will need twice as much electricity in 2050 as is produced now.

The math is sobering. In the U.S., for example, renewables supply only about 14% of the electricity. A doubling of electricity consumption, while going from 14 to 100% reliance on clean sources, would mean we’d need about 14 times as much renewable energy in the U.S. by 2050 as what exists today.

It’s not easy. But it’s doable.

Much of the hope lies in the growth of solar and wind power, as has beewidely reported. Both are spreading rapidly and decreasing in cost, thanks to advances in technology and economies of scale.

The amount of solar power generated, for example, has doubled every two years or less for the past 40 years. The cost per watt has plummeted 300x over the same time. IF that rate continues, solar is less than 12 years from generating all the energy the world needs.

Wind power is also on an aggressive move toward zero cost — prices are down nearly 50% in the past year or so. Contracts were recently signed for wind power in Mexico and Brazil at less than a third of the average worldwide cost for coal, the cheapest fossil fuel energy source.

But, getting to total clean energy is far easier said than done.

There are two key holdups: storage and transmission. Solar- and wind-powered electricity must be reliably and affordably delivered where and when needed, and in the amounts that are needed. The current grid isn’t up to the task. We’ll need major advances in batteries and other technologies to store enough electricity for use during nights and cloudy, windless days and to deal with the seasonal differences in sunshine and wind. We’ll need to build long-distance transmission lines to take power from sunny and windy regions to other areas.

Fortunately, the cost of batteries is also plunging, with industrial batteries experiencing price drops of nearly a factor of 12 between 2009 and 2018. The room (and need) for improvement is enormous, however.

So, as drastic as forecasted advances may seem now, there’s a heated debate on whether they would even be enough. Two of the richest and most forward-thinking people in the world are on opposite sides of this debate: Elon Musk is among the optimists, and Bill Gates is among the skeptical. While Musk believes advances with solar, wind, and batteries will meet our needs, Gates (who also supports the adoption of renewables as quickly as possible) argues breakthroughs may also be needed in nuclear fission and fusion to fill gaps in the service that renewables will be able to provide.

I hope that Musk is right, but fear Gates is closer to the mark. Therefore, since stakes here are so high and the timing so urgent, I believe we need to go full speed ahead on all fronts — just in case.

Fortunately, tools enabled by Laws of Zero in computing, communications, and information will provide a platform for innovation at unprecedented speed. Tests of new materials, new approaches to building and managing the grid, and so on used to require painstaking work in the physical world. But those efforts can increasingly be done based on models and simulations, essentially becoming software problems that AI can tackle. The work can be done on computers over periods measured in seconds, minutes, and hours, not in months, years, and decades.

For example, multiple groups of researchers are now using sophisticated computer simulations to develop alternative strategies for transforming the U.S. grid. They’re starting with detailed models of all existing power grids, along with detailed weather and usage patterns, and are then simulating different placements of generation and transmission capabilities. The researchers looked at current plans, including some considered ambitious, that would cut emissions by 6% by 2030. They have created more detailed options that could reduce emissions by 42% by the end of the decade. They have also made their tools and models publicly available so others can stress-test the designs and explore alternatives.

Once we have all that net-zero electricity (we hope), we will have to use it for the second prong of our six-prong strategy for solving climate change by 2050. We have to replace fossil fuels in as many applications as possible. That’s the focus of my next article in this series.

Read the rest of this series:

  1. Here’s How We Can (Mostly) Solve Climate Change by 2050 (Part 1)
  2. What Might a Prime Minister Greta Thunberg Celebrate by 2050? (Part 2)
  3. Renewable Energy is Critical But Not Enough (Part 3)
  4. Next, Electrify Everything Possible (Part 4)
  5. Efficiency, Efficiency, Efficiency (Part 5)
  6. Other Scientific Breakthroughs We Need — and Why We Can Make Them (Part 6)
  7. Carbon Capture From Air (Part 7)
  8. Getting There From Here (Part 8 and Conclusion)

I focus on innovation at the intersection of advance technology and societal good. I’m also the author of five books on innovation including, most recently, “A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the World We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050.” To be notified about future articles, subscribe at my website.

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Chunka Mui

Chunka Mui

Futurist and Innovation Advisor. I try to carry out Alan Kay’s exhortation that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”