EIA: Renewables to provide 50% of electricity by midcentury

Source: By Carlos Anchondo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, October 6, 2019

Renewable energy sources will power nearly half of global electricity by 2050, according to new data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, with solar technology forecast to grow most rapidly over that period.

The research, derived from the International Energy Outlook 2019, projects solar to outcompete growth in wind and hydropower in the next three decades.

Even as renewables progressively account for a larger share of electricity generation, the agency also forecasts the consumption of petroleum and other liquid fuels to increase by more than 20%.

Global crude oil production is slated to rise by nearly 30%, EIA analysts found, reaching 127 million barrels per day by midcentury.

The agency said renewable energy sources last year generated 28% of electricity worldwide — a figure expected to reach 49% by 2050. Two years ago, EIA said that in 2040 renewables would constitute 31% of global electricity generation — the same percentage it forecast for coal.

China is projected to see the most growth in solar generation due to its rising demand for electricity, as well as favorable government policies and competitive technology costs, the agency said in its brief. India is also anticipated to see a big uptick in solar power use, the report said.

Sasha Mackler, director of the Energy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said although the forecast growth in renewables is impressive, it won’t be enough to keep up with a rising global energy demand or to displace more conventional energy sources.

As the demand for electricity increases, the deployment of renewables will not be able to make a meaningful dent in global carbon emissions without new policy levers to hasten a transition away from carbon-emitting sources, Mackler said.

“Notwithstanding the great strides we see in technology and cost associated with renewables, the underlying conventional fuels continue to be very cost effective in many markets,” Mackler said.

Nader Sobhani, a climate policy associate at the Niskanen Center, a Washington, D.C.-area think tank, pointed out the EIA outlook makes estimates through a “business-as-usual” reference case, and that more aggressive emissions reductions goals or clean energy standards by countries could increase the percentage of renewables providing electricity.

Demographic changes, technological advances and shifts in resource availability can also influence ultimate percentages, he said. Sobhani said the energy industry — as well as climate activists — should be concerned about the pace of the energy transition and the need to account for what he called the “social cost of carbon” via a price on CO2 or similar policy.

“If we internalize that cost and start paying for the damage that traditional fossil fuel energy sources produce, then renewables would be considerably more competitive than fossil fuel generation technologies,” Sobhani said, “and their share in the energy mix would grow further and much quicker at that.”

The EIA outlook also found that energy-related CO2 emissions are expected to increase by roughly 20% worldwide between now and 2050 (Energywire, Oct. 1).

Rob Sargent, energy program director at Environment America, said that while the emissions figures are discouraging, he’s heartened by the growth of renewables. Sargent said it is part of his job to prove EIA forecasts wrong and that it’s not unrealistic to have renewables power all electricity by 2050.

“The science makes it clear that we have to do something pretty darn close to make that number 100% by then or sooner,” Sargent said.

Forecasts by EIA have previously understated clean energy trends, Sargent said. Breakthroughs in technology, he said — coupled with a greater understanding of the energy grid and developments in energy storage — are critical to a clean energy transition.

“I think that the revolution is happening, and we have a lot of work to do to make sure it happens fast enough,” Sargent said.