Can Renewable Energy Really Power the World?

As world leaders gather to make new promises bolder and better than before, the clock ticks ever closer to climate catastrophe. This year’s agenda is the same as every other year: how to reduce fossil fuel emissions without rocking the boat.

India proclaimed they’ll hit net-zero by 2070. China, not wanting to be outdone, promised net-zero by 2060. That will be a proud achievement for the locals living in cities too hot for human habitation.

It’s all very rearranging deckchairs on the titanic.

The goal is to keep global temperatures 1.5°C lower than pre-industrial levels. Seemingly ignoring the current evidence that 1.5°C is probably baked in, with a 2.5 to 4.5°C rise the most likely outcome by 2100.

To do that promises to reduce fossil fuels rely on a fundamental assumption: renewable energy is sufficient to power the world. (And can be built within the necessary timeline — roughly 10–20 years).

There’s reason to doubt this assumption, however.
In 2011, two senior Google engineers spilt the beans on renewable energy. After working for several years on Google’s “RE<C” initiative, Ross Koningstein and David Fork reached a profound conclusion:

“Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work.”
That’s a surprising conclusion. Especially in light of renewables becoming the cheapest form of power in two-thirds of the world. Indeed, solar and wind are forecast to supply half the globe by 2050. Even in China and India — COP26’s foot draggers — solar, wind, and hydropower are expected to surpass 60% of total energy generation.

So, why the startling conclusion?

When the RE<C team began, they were confident that renewables could reduce emissions significantly to avoid the worst climate change scenarios.

The data told a different story, however.

As Koningstein and Fork wrote:

“Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use.

“So, our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others.”
That’s a sobering realisation. To conclude that even if the best renewable dream came to pass, it wouldn’t be enough.

The Unsolved Problem of Renewables
Koningstein and Fork weren’t saying that we shouldn’t pursue renewables. We should. But we need to do more to avoid the prophesied climate catastrophe.

Why won’t renewables work, though?

In a nutshell: the problem is one of energy density.

Humanity has become addicted to fossil fuels like a big-boned kid with a candy bar. Oil, gas, and coal are energy-dense. They’re the results of millions of years of solar energy condensed, via geological processes, into a turbocharged, easily burnable form.

What we’re trying to do is replace millions of years of condescended energy with the solar energy that hits the Earth in a single year: be it wind, solar, or hydropower.

   Solar power has the ability to transform the world’s energy supply

It’s a tough task.

Even worse, renewable energy collection is erratic. Solar panels could be placed on every rooftop, but the power doesn’t flow if the sun doesn’t shine. Ironically, COP26’s host, the United Kingdom, has faced a similar problem, with energy prices spiking following a lacklustre year for wind energy.

So, wind power can be cheaper than coal, but unless you can “dispatch” the wind energy where and when it’s needed, you’re still going to need to burn something. Sometimes you just need power on demand.

There are solutions: advanced nuclear power, geothermal energy, and hydroelectric power are all dispatchable. Meaning they can be switched on rapidly when other renewable sources don’t meet demand.

Renewables Aren’t So Renewable
Clean energy technologies are also hiding a dirty little secret. They’re reliant on a cornucopia of critical minerals to function.

That’s raised concerns about a bottleneck.

“Today, the data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions,” said Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA.

Indeed, the energy sector’s demands for critical minerals could increase up to six times by 2040. Even more concerning, the faster we adopt renewables to reduce emissions, the more pronounced the bottleneck will become.

Prices will also rise as supply outstrips demand. After years of renewables falling in price, they may become a victim of their own success. Copper, for instance, is expected to suffer a 4.7 million metric ton shortfall by 2030 — copper mines simply can’t open fast enough.

Nor is mining a clean process. Lithium — essential for battery tech — needs copious volumes of water. These metals also leach into soils and rivers, toxifying the local environment.

It’s yet another underappreciated facet of the race for renewables.