A big thumbs up for renewable energy from IPCC

So what proportion of the low-carbon energy needed to meet those goals will come from sources like the wind, sun and waves? Most renewable sources are abundant, practically inexhaustible and far more climate friendly than fossil fuels. Some companies making equipment to harness these energies are growing rapidly.

Last month, experts advising the United Nations said renewable sources could deliver nearly 80 per cent of world’s total energy demand by the middle of the century.

That report, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the most authoritative body of experts, scientists and engineers specialised in climate change — was a welcome signal for an industry that has faltered in previous decades after government subsidies dried up and lower-cost fossil fuels made their technologies uncompetitive.

The report “is a big thumbs up for an industry that’s making huge advances in lowering costs and improving efficiency,” said Maja Wessels, global head of government affairs for First Solar, one of the largest makers of solar panels. “The experts have said that reaching high renewables targets will become very achievable.” She said that the report should serve as basis for governments and lenders like the World Bank to plan investment in energy systems and infrastructure.

Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chairman of the climate panel that wrote the report, said the findings were realistic. “Under no circumstances can we afford to omit or neglect renewables,”  Edenhofer said by telephone. “But we must remember that there is more than one way to achieve a low greenhouse gas economy.” He was referring to alternatives to renewable sources like nuclear power and technologies under development to limit the damage of fossil fuel use by capturing and storing carbon dioxide before it reaches the atmosphere.

Some of the renewable sources with the greatest potential to deliver large amounts of energy, like certain kinds of solar power, remain expensive compared with burning fossil fuels, he said. And integrating a wide variety of renewable sources into existing power grids would be a huge technical and financial challenge, he added.

That caution was echoed by separate report released on May 24 by the International Energy Agency. While the agency found that biomass, geothermal and hydropower provide a steady stream of power and pose no greater challenge than conventional power to integrate into grids, other renewable sources — wind, solar, wave and tidal energy — fluctuate with the weather and are often in places that lack grids.

The report found that six sources — bioenergy, wind, solar, geothermal energy, hydropower and ocean energy — currently accounted for 13 per cent of global energy supply. The panel expected costs for many of the technologies to fall, though they still would be formidable. Reaching a point where renewable sources would contribute significantly more low-carbon energy than nuclear power and fossil fuels by midcentury will require investments by governments and the private sector of up to $5.1 trillion through 2020, and up to $7.2 trillion from 2021 to 2030.

Ocean energy

Solar still represented just 0.1 per cent of total global energy supply. Ocean energy projects are at demonstration or pilot phases and unlikely to become significant contributors before 2020.

Geothermal stands at 0.1 per cent of global energy supply. Tests are still under way to determine if so-called enhanced techniques to raise output can be viable. Hydropower already accounts for 2.3 per cent of global energy supplies, but its expansion is partly limited by the effects that dams and reservoirs can have on local ecology and water systems.

Biomass, including biofuels and traditional cooking and heating, is the most widely used renewable source, accounting for 10.2 per cent of global energy supply. But using trees and crops for fuel creates more emissions when new land is cleared to make room for displaced crops. “Biomass may be a major source of renewable energy, but it also has quickly become one of the most contentious sources,” Edenhofer said.

The outlook for wind was probably the clearest. It could supply up to 8.4 per cent of global energy in 2050 from current levels of about 0.2 per cent, according to the report.

Since the evidence used in the report was compiled, additional factors that could dampen interest in renewable energy have emerged, including the rapid development of shale gas in the United States. The boom in shale gas extraction has lowered energy prices and could make relatively expensive renewable technologies less appealing.

In Europe, the shale gas industry is far less developed. But the more immediate challenge is how governments have shrunk or delayed plans for renewable energy after a sovereign debt crisis led to cutbacks and continues to cast a shadow over the prospects for growth.

“A lot of policy enthusiasm in the developed west has been tempered by austerity,” said Nick Robins, chief analyst for climate change at HSBC. “On the other hand, China and India still are growing quickly and they have the imperative to invest in renewable energy to meet new demand.”

That more promising assessment of China and India is borne out by the panel’s report, which found that developing countries already host 53 per cent of the world’s electrical generating capacity from renewable sources. The Chinese “now look at renewables as part of the energy mix, while we in the west still look at them as expensive and a nice to have, rather than a necessity,” said Reid of Jefferies.

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