No, renewables are not taking over the world anytime soon.
Guest essay by Bjørn Lomborg
We have spent the last two centuries getting off renewables because they were mostly weak, costly and unreliable. Half a century ago, in 1966, the world got 15.6% of its energy from renewables. Today (2016) we still get less of our energy at 13.8%.
With our concern for global warming, we are ramping up the use of renewables. The mainstream reporting lets you believe that renewables are just about to power the entire world. But this is flatly wrong.
The new World Energy Outlook report from the International Energy Agency shows how much renewables will increase over the next quarter century, to 2040. In its New Policies Scenario, which rather optimistically expects all nations to live up to their Paris climate promise, it sees the percentage increase less than 6 percentage points from 13.8% to 19.4%. More realistically, the increase will be 2 percentage points to 15.8%.
Most of the renewables are not solar PV and wind. Today, almost 10 percentage points come from the world’s oldest fuel: wood. Hydropower provides another 2.5 percentage points and all other renewables provide just 1.6 percentage points, of which solar PV and wind provide 0.8 percentage points.
Neither will most renewables in 2040 come from solar PV and wind, as breathless reporting tends to make you believe. 10 percentage points will come from wood. Hydropower provides another 3 percentage points and all other renewables provide 6 percentage points, of which solar PV and wind will (very optimistically) provide 3.7 percentage points.
Oh, and to achieve this 3.7 % of energy from solar PV and wind, you and I and the rest of the world will pay – according to the IEA – a total of $3.6 trillion in subsidies from 2017-2040 to support these uncompetitive energy sources. (Of course, if they were competitive, they wouldn’t need subsidies, and then they will be most welcome.)
Most people tend to think about electricity for renewables, but the world uses plenty of energy that is not electricity (heat, transport, manufacture and industrial processes).
Actually, if the world miraculously could make the *entire* global electricity sector 100% green without emitting a single ton of greenhouse gasses, we would have solved just a third of the total global greenhouse gas problem.
As Al Gore’s climate adviser, Jim Hansen, put it bluntly:
“Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and [the] Tooth Fairy.”
We need to get real on renewables. Only if green energy becomes much cheaper – and that requires lots of green R&D – will a renewables transition be possible.
Data for graph: “A brief history of energy” by Roger Fouquet, International Handbook of the Economics of Energy 2009; IEA data DOI: 10.1787/enestats-data-en, and World Energy Outlook 2017, unfortunately not free, https://www.iea.org/weo2017/
The world emitted 49Gt CO₂e in 2014, and all electricity/heat came to 15Gt or less than a third, http://cait.wri.org/profile/World.