CSIRO’s Wes Stein a lead author on new IPCC renewable energy reportPosted: Wednesday, 21st September, 2011
Renewable energy is a hot topic. If you turn on the TV or open a newspaper, it won’t be long before you come across a news article or opinion piece about energy, whether it be technical, economic, social or political. So with all these (sometimes heated) arguments underway, and with issues like resource availability and climate change at stake, it’s more important than ever that we have clear answers to questions like these:
- is there actually enough renewable energy to satisfy our global power needs?
- is there enough money and material available to be able to harness this energy?, and
- if so, what has to happen to make it a reality?
That’s why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently released a special report on the potential of renewable energy. The report, called the ‘Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation,’ was compiled by over 120 researchers from all over the world according to peer-revieved scientific data. We’re really proud that one of these contributers was CSIRO’s Wes Stein, who was a lead author on the Solar Energy chapter.
The report’s findings in a nutshell? Using just a small fraction of the world’s available renewable energy, almost 80% of the global energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century – but the support of governments will be essential if renewables are to meet their full potential.
As you might guess, doing the research for this report was a mammoth undertaking. The physicist Niels Bohr was known to say wryly, ‘It’s difficult to make predictions – especially about the future,’ and the report authors were well aware of the problems involved. Consider, for example, a future where governments set a strict, low target for CO2 emissions. This future will have a different amount of renewable energy installed than a future which has less strict targets. Likewise, how much solar and wind are installed will be very different in a world where people decide to limit the building of new nuclear power plants, compared to a world where we choose to rely heavily on nuclear.
So instead of guessing what the future might bring, the report authors decided to consider 164 different scenarios – all with different types of governmental policies, emissions targets, community attitudes to technologies and so on – and modelled them all. Four scenarios were presented as in-depth examples in the report.
The majority of scenarios predicted that renewable energy production will increase significantly by mid-century – specifically, three-fold to over ten-fold increases in (non-biomass) renewables are projected in the report. This leads to a world where 30% or more of our energy comes from renewable sources. In fact, in the most optimistic scenario, it was shown to be feasible that as much as 77% of the world’s energy will come from renewables by 2050. The factor that had the most influence on outcomes was the level of government support. Renewables became more feasible in scenarios where it was assumed that our governments enacted policies, such as putting a price on carbon, that helped those energy technologies become economically attractive.
And what about solar energy in particular? It has the largest technical potential of all the renewable sources, supplying about 8,000 times as much energy as the world uses, and in some scenarios it is one of the major sources of global energy supply in 2050. But its future is highly dependent on whether its cost decreases quickly enough. At CSIRO we’re helping this process along by improving the technologies to make them less expensive – but this IPCC report shows that policymakers will need to contribute too, for solar to have the brightest future possible.
Download the full IPCC Renewable Energy report here (file size 28 MB) or see a presentation summarising the key findings here (6 MB). The chapter on solar energy, for which Wes Stein is a lead author, is found here.