Renewable Energy Could Hit 36% Of Global Energy Use, But There's A Biomass Catch
Would you pay $2.50 to double sustainable energy’s share of the global energy market, reduce carbon dioxide emissions 8.6 gigatonnes (Gt), and create 900,000 new net jobs in the energy sector by 2030?
Unless you’re firmly rooted in the fossil fuel industry, the answer is probably yes, which means you'd also likely be interested in the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) REmap 2030. The report lays out a five-step roadmap for scaling renewable energy up to 36% of the world’s total final energy consumption (TFEC), cutting coal use 26% and oil/gas use 15%, and keeping atmospheric CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million (PPM).
But there’s a catch – IRENA’s recommendations center on expanding power from biomass. It’s arguably the most controversial renewable energy source, and uncertainties about technology and reported volumes could undercut potential of the world’s sustainable energy future.
The First Study of Worldwide Renewable Energy Potential
IRENA touts REmap 2030 as the first study of worldwide renewable energy potential, and it’s nothing if not comprehensive, with in-depth analysis of 26 countries representing 74% of projected global TFEC in 2030.
On the whole, REmap2030 makes an incredibly compelling case for converting the world’s energy system to sustainable sources. Existing renewable energy technologies have “entered into a virtuous cycle of falling costs, increasing deployment, and accelerated technological progress,” according to IRENA, citing current trends of renewable energy technologies accounting for half all new power generation capacity worldwide.
And REmap2030 wasn’t developed in a vacuum. Beyond the 26-nation analysis, 82 national experts from 42 countries contributed to IRENA’s number crunching, and the report has been presented to several international audiences (including the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties) for feedback.
Renewable Subsidies Cheaper Than Fossil Fuels
Even if the entire package of REmap2030 policy recommendations is instituted, the renewable energy sector would require $315 billion per year by 2030, a price tag that pales in comparison to the $544 billion in subsidies fossil fuels received in 2012 according to the International Monetary Fund. The bill looks even like an even better bargain after factoring in up to $740 billion in health and environmental benefits from reduced emissions by 2030.
“The central policy question is this – what energy sources do we want to invest in?” said Adnan Z. Amin, IRENA Director-General. “Our data shows that renewable energy can help avert catastrophic climate change and save the world money if all costs are considered.”
To date, the world has chosen investing in fossil fuels. IMF’s 2012 tally of $544 billion in fossil fuel subsidies grew $135 billion since 2010, exceeding 50% of total supply costs of coal, natural gas, and crude oil.
Compare the fossil fuel bill to renewable energy’s 2012 tally of $101 billion in subsidies during 2012, and the uphill climb is clear – IRENA estimates a business-as-usual approach will only take the world from renewables’ current 18% share to 21% by 2030.
That bias may also extend to official outlooks. Governments tend to underestimate the growing market share of renewable energy, according to IRENA, citing solar photovoltaics (PV) as an example. Current worldwide government projections for solar PV total less than 500 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, compared to IRENA’s forecast of 1,250GW solar PV by 2030 if current market trends are coupled with enabling policies.
But What About Biomass?
Technically and financially, REmap 2030 seems to check out, with one exception – the world’s most popular renewable energy. Traditional biomass (wood, agricultural by-products, and dung) represented half of all renewable energy use in 2010, nearly 9% of all worldwide TFEC. Biomass reliance is even more significant in developing nations, where large sections of the population live in energy poverty and rely upon burning plant matter for lighting, heating, and cooking.
Under business-as-usual, IRENA expects traditional biomass to fall to 7% TFEC and 3% TFEC if all REmap 2030 policies are adopted. But far from shifting to other renewables, IRENA expects modern biomass “dominates the renewable energy portfolio” with 61% of renewable energy use.
This domination relies on converting traditional cookstoves and district heat, electricity generation, and transportation fuel to more sustainable and more efficient forms of biomass or biofuel. In addition, REmap envisions biofuels output to nearly triple, and perhaps more importantly, become a large-scale substitute for coal in thermal power plants. “Indeed significant other renewable energy potential exist in the electricity sector in mentioned countries where bioenergy plays a secondary role,” said Dolf Gielen, IRENA Director of Innovation and Technology.
But given the difficulties liquid biofuels have had scaling up, as well as biomass supply concerns, caution seems warranted. IRENA concedes if biomass supply is limited to only crop residues, overall renewables’ share drops six percentage points, and if advanced liquid biofuels don’t grow as expected overall renewables lose another four percentage points. “Continued growth of agricultural productivity is a critical factor,” said Gielen.
Other REmap 2030 strategies such as relocating power demand between countries, hydrogen and biogas production increases, and substituting electricity for heating could hedge against a failed biomass end-use sector transition, but all would increase costs and implementation time.
But even if biomass burning gets cleaner, it’s still an emissions concern. A recent Stanford University study estimates burning plant matter for heat and power represent around 18% of all human-made CO2 emissions, cause 5-10% of all worldwide air pollution mortalities, and add brown carbon to the atmosphere – all of which increase global warming. “The bottom line is that biomass burning is neither clean nor climate-neutral,” said Mark Jacobson, the report’s author.
REmap Analysis Improving Over Time
All in all, while concerns may exist for the probability of REmap 2030 to achieve its goals, it’s an important work in progress. IRENA is expanding analysis beyond the original 26 countries and expects to publish additional analysis and country work over the course of this year, raising coverage to more than 80% of TFEC. With greater analysis, REmap 2030 will likely become more accurate and its predictions more feasible.
And in the end, the world must cut emissions in order to slow global warming, and IRENA’s policy recommendations follow a sound and holistic path for governments to decarbonize their power sector, even if the exact technologies may shift.
“Doubling the global share of renewables is technically feasible and affordable – and doing so would help avert catastrophic climate change,” said Gielen. “The policy scope must be broadened, with more attention given to the end-use sectors: buildings, industry, and transportation.”
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