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Russ Baker: 100 Percent Renewable Energy Laughable? Would 80 Percent Float Your Boat?

May 12, 2011

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The bottom line: visibility is crucial—if action is to follow. This is why we cannot depend on “old media” any more than on “old energy.”

By **Russ Baker**

By arrangement with WhoWhatWhy.com.

Some time ago, we brought to your attention a study that explored the possibility of a world running on 100 percent renewable energy. Lots of readers were enthusiastic about trying to see if this can be done. Others were highly skeptical.

Now, comes a new report, from the UN, saying that within 40 years, 80 percent of the world’s energy needs could actually come from renewable sources. 100 percent, 80 percent. Both sound pretty good.

Here’s the U.K.’s The Guardian:

     Renewable energy could account for almost 80 percent of the world’s energy supply

     within four decades—but only if governments pursue the policies needed to promote green

     power, according to a landmark report published on Monday.

     The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of the world’s leading climate

     scientists convened by the United Nations, said that if the full range of renewable

     technologies were deployed, the world could keep greenhouse gas concentrations to less

     than 450 parts per million, the level scientists have predicted will be the limit of safety

     beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible.

     Investing in renewables to the extent needed would cost only about 1 percent of global

     GDP annually, said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC.

     Renewable energy is already growing fast—of the 300 gigawatts of new electricity

     generation capacity added globally between 2008 and 2009, about 140GW came from

     renewable sources, such as wind and solar power, according to the report.

This is an invitation to governments to initiate a radical overhaul of their policies and place renewable energy centre stage.

     The investment that will be needed to meet the greenhouse gas emissions targets

     demanded by scientists is likely to amount to about $5trn in the next decade, rising to

     $7trn from 2021 to 2030.

     Ramon Pichs, co-chair of one of the key IPCC working groups, said: “The report shows

     that it is not the availability of [renewable] resources but the public policies

     that will either expand or constrain renewable energy development over the

     coming decades. Developing countries have an important stake in the future—this is

     where most of the 1.4 billion people without access to electricity live yet also where some

     of the best conditions exist for renewable energy deployment.”

     Sven Teske, renewable energy director at Greenpeace International, and a lead author of

     the report, said: “This is an invitation to governments to initiate a radical

     overhaul of their policies and place renewable energy centre stage. On the run

     up to the next major climate conference, COP17 in South Africa in December, the onus is

     clearly on governments to step up to the mark.”

     He added: “The IPCC report shows overwhelming scientific evidence that renewable

     energy can also meet the growing demand of developing countries, where over 2

     billion people lack access to basic energy services and can do so at a more cost-

     competitive and faster rate than conventional energy sources. Governments have to kick

     start the energy revolution by implementing renewable energy laws across the globe.”

     The 1,000-page Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change

     Mitigation (SRREN) marks the first time the IPCC has examined low-carbon energy in

     depth, and the first interim report since the body’s comprehensive 2007 review of the

     science of climate change.

     Although the authors are optimistic about the future of renewable energy, they note that

     many forms of the technology are still more expensive than fossil fuels, and find that the

     production of renewable energy will have to increase by as much as 20 times in order to

     avoid dangerous levels of global warming. Renewables will play a greater role than

     either nuclear or carbon capture and storage by 2050, the scientists predict.

     Investing in renewables can also help poor countries to develop, particularly where large

     numbers of people lack access to an electricity grid.

     About 13 percent of the world’s energy came from renewable sources in 2008, a proportion

     likely to have risen as countries have built up their capacity since then, with China leading

     the investment surge, particularly in wind energy. But by far the greatest source of

     renewable energy used globally at present is burning biomass (about 10 percent of the total

     global energy supply), which is problematic because it can cause deforestation, leads to

     deposits of soot that accelerate global warming, and cooking fires cause indoor air

     pollution that harms health.

     There was disappointment for enthusiasts of marine energy, however, as the report found

     that wave and tidal power were “unlikely to significantly contribute to global energy

     supply before 2020.” Wind power, by contrast, met about 2 percent of global

     electricity demand in 2009, and could increase to more than 20 percent by

     2050.

The bottom line: visibility is crucial—if action is to follow. This is why we cannot depend on “old media” any more than on “old energy.”

     As with all IPCC reports, the summary for policymakers—the synopsis of the report that

     will be presented to governments and is likely to impact renewable energy policy—had to

     be agreed line by line and word by word unanimously by all countries. This was done at

     Monday’s meeting in Abu Dhabi. This makes the process lengthy, but means that afterwards

     no government or scientist represented can say that they disagree with the

     finished findings, which the IPCC sees as a key strength of its operations.

The New York Times was out quickly with a rather dull business section item, and with a blog dampener:

     The result is a suite of 160 clean and neat “what if” scenarios, but very little (at least if the

     summary reflects what’s coming in the full 900-page report at the end of the month) on how

     the more aggressive scenarios for cleaning up the global energy supply might actually be

     achieved in the real world of competing and conflicting national, corporate and personal

     interests.

     The summary, for example, barely mentions natural gas, even though it is hard to find an

     energy analyst these days who does not see low natural gas prices, now foreseen for

     decades to come, as deeply undercutting prospects for expanded deployment of renewable

     energy sources (let alone nuclear power).

This kind of spin says that the cart goes before the horse, and, surprise surprise, we get nowhere fast.

Worse, the UN report, which involved a tremendous amount of energy and urgency, may hardly be noticed at all. Did you see it featured on your evening television news, hear this from your favorite online or print source? Did they treat it as a huge story? If not, there’s the problem. (Hint: Do you notice all the advertising from the oil and gas industry?)

The bottom line: visibility is crucial—if action is to follow.

This is why we cannot depend on “old media” any more than on “old energy.”

Copyright 2011 Russ Baker ________________________________________________________________________

This essay originally appeared at WhoWhatWhy.com.

Russ Baker is an award-winning investigative reporter and the founder and editor-in-chief of WhoWhatWhy.

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