Moving to a World Powered by Renewables

Earlier this month, South by Southwest (SXSW) held their inaugural Eco conference in Austin, Texas. Although SXSQ holds an annual independent film festival that is second only to Sundance, an interactive conference comparable to TED and a music festival that is truly second to none, the SXSW crew saw the need for a concerted, cross sector approach to solving sustainability and environmental challenges and launched their latest effort, SXSW Eco.

Throughout the three-day event, over 50 panels and speeches ranging in topic from climate change and cleantech investing, to renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainability were discussed and then challenged by several hundred highly engaged attendees.

During the panel, “Achieving 100% Renewables by 2050,” Tom Brookes of the European Climate Foundation, Sierra Club’s Mary Anne Hitt, Michael Hogan of the Regulatory Assistance Project and I examined opportunities and challenges of moving to a world that is powered by renewable sources.

Elimination of Coal Generation

In order to achieve high levels of renewables by 2050 coal needs to be eliminated from the generation mix. Although coal accounts for approximately 22 percent of the U.S. primary energy consumption today, existing utility plants are aging; 94 percent of today’s coal capacity will be retired by 2050—and that’s if one assumes that they can be affordably operated and maintained until they are 60 years old.

In addition, there is evidence that new coal generation in the U.S. will be increasingly difficult to build. For example, in 2010, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast 10 GW of coal plants would be added by 2035, but in 2011 that forecast dropped to zero. However, when we think outside our borders there is still quite a bit of work to do. According to the EIA, China’s coal-fired capacity today is approximately 80 percent higher than that of the United States. By 2035, it is expected to be more than 200 percent greater.

High levels of Efficiency

The importance of efficiency is undeniable. The panel quickly determined it to be a foundational step in the goal of achieving high levels of renewable energy. Two critical factors need to be understood: First, U.S. buildings use 42 percent of the nation’s energy—more than any country except China and the U.S. Unfortunately, most of that energy is wasted. By implementing currently available, straightforward energy efficiency techniques we can make 2050’s buildings use 38 percent less energy than officially projected.

Second, the electric sector has enjoyed growth in demand in all but four years since 1949. However, the rate of increase has been steadily declining. Implementing end use energy efficiency measures in buildings, industrial processes and transportation options can turn the historic growth rate of electricity demand negative. Therefore, the key to achieving high levels of renewable energy by 2050 is not only constructing more solar and wind farms, it is also committing to highly efficient buildings, vehicles and factories.

Distributed Generation

Although the panel agreed a blend of both centralized and distributed resources are required to achieve a future dominated by renewables, the group felt the most significant and striking change is the future role and prevalence of distributed resources.

When compared to centralized generation—both conventional and renewable—the benefits are clear. Distributed resources are smaller in unit size, which results in shorter construction times. They are typically located closer to demand, which reduces the need for long transmission lines to connect remote centralized generators. In addition, with distributed generation, capacity can be built out incrementally—more closely aligned with customer demand projections—which can ultimately reduce financial risk. Considering that the distributed generation market grew to $60 billion globally in 2010, a 91 percent increase from the previous year, it is not surprising that it commands a leading role in a future dominated by renewables.

Reflecting on the panel and SXSW Eco week in general I am energized by the level of excitement, engagement, collaboration and concentered effort that are clearly focused on combating climate change and implementing the new energy era. More importantly, the discussions heard in the hallways, on the panels and throughout the event proved that not only are we ready to create the new energy era—we are craving it.

The timing couldn’t be better for RMI to publically launch Reinventing Fire next week. This blueprint to the new energy era shows how we can transition to an efficient, renewable and distributed electric system by 2050.