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Renewable energy sources are soaring, yet we need more

An interesting graphic showing the increase/decrease of power production per source over the last ten years. Notice the decrease of coal in the last two years (although the 2020 figures are distorted by the pandemic and its effect of production and power consumption by industry). Notable as well that almost all of the increased production in 2020 derives from renewables. Image credit: Bloomberg Green

There is no question now that renewable sources will keep growing in this decade and in the following ones as result of

  • better technology that keeps reducing their cost to the point of being (in terms of TW generation) equivalent to best in class fossil fuel sources, and
  • strong, and concrete, commitment from many Governments to go green with a 2060 target of net zero carbon emission by 2060 (yes it used to be 2050 but a new date has been agreed as a compromise)

I find the graphic created by Bloomberg Green, see the image, very interesting and worth considering:

  • Since 2011 every year we have added some additional 750 TWh of power (as average but actually steadily growing year over year. The exception was 2012 when there was an economy rebound stimulating demand and the slow down of 2019 and 2020 as the pandemic affected energy demand;
  • For the first time use of coal as source has decreased significantly in 2019 and 2020;
  • In the last two years the growth has been “fuelled” by renewable, with significant reduction in coal with a negative net growth but that is a consequence of the slump in production courtesy of the pandemic.

It is interesting to look at the trends and here the International Energy Agency has just issued a press release (December 1st, 2021) with the latest data that are both impressive in terms of expected result and discouraging in terms of needed ones.

According to the report:

  • by the end of this year (2021) the amount of additional renewable power capacity is expected to reach 290 GW (that would mean 2,540 TWh! but of course renewable are not delivering continuous power output so a more reasonable figure should be in the order of 600 TWh a significant leap from the 2020 350 TWh )
  • by 2026 renewables are expected to increase by 4,800GW (in the range of 10,000 TWh)
  • the additional power provided by renewable in the 2021-2026 is expected to be 50% higher than the one added between 2015-2020. Most of this increase can be connected to the strong Government support following the COP26 Climate Change Conference.

Aren’t these great numbers? Sure. However, one should note that this increase in renewable power will not correspond 1 to 1 on a decrease of fossil fuel power (hence in a corresponding decrease of carbon emission) because the energy demand will keep growing. The growing availability of renewable for part of the day will require a growing back up capability by fossil fuels during the night (gas in particular) with a corresponding increase of average energy cost for this decade. Over longer time frame we can expect the grid to become smarter, making use of micro generators and micro storage to fill gaps. Nuclear power is most likely to become an important source in the next decade (UK is betting on it) and may be we could tap on fusion power that really seems within reach.

The bad news from the International Energy Agency is that to be on track meeting the zero net carbon emission by 2060 we would need to add “double” the renewable capacity that even the most optimistic forecast are estimating for the 2021-2026 period.

Of course it is not only “power” generation. It is about distribution and most important consumption. Curbing consumption without affecting the GDP is the big challenge that so far has no solution.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.