WWF: Renewable sources can supply sufficient energy

It will take trillions of dollars and a massive shift in consumer, corporate and political mindsets, but the world can get all the energy it needs from wind, water, solar and geothermal sources by mid-century.

This is according to the 2011 Energy Report of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), released internationally on Thursday.

“By 2050, we could get all the energy we need from renewable sources,” it says.

Briefing the media in Cape Town—via video link from Johannesburg—WWF South Africa climate change programme manager Richard Worthington said it went a long way towards “addressing perceptions perpetuated by Eskom and others that we will always need large-scale coal and/or nuclear power to provide adequate energy services for human progress, either in South Africa or elsewhere”.

He said the report showed that in four decades, power, transport, industrial and domestic energy needs could be met by renewables, with only isolated residual uses of fossil and nuclear fuels.

According to the document, such a transition is not only technically possible, but also cost-effective.

“By 2050, we [would] save nearly $5,4-trillion annually through energy efficiency and reduced fuel costs over a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario”.

An alternative scenario
The report, which took two years to compile, offers an alternative scenario, produced in collaboration with energy consultancy Ecofys.

“As far as possible, we use electrical energy rather than solid and liquid fuels. Wind, solar, biomass and hydropower are the main sources of electricity, with solar and geothermal sources, as well as heat pumps, providing a large share of heat for buildings and industry.

“Because supplies of wind and solar power vary, ‘smart’ electricity grids have been developed to store and deliver energy more efficiently.”

The report also stresses the need for “ambitious energy-saving measures”, including the use by industry of more recycled and energy efficient materials, and buildings built or upgraded to need minimal energy for heating and cooling.

However, the cost of the changeover—which WWF says is essential to avoid environmental and climate change catastrophe—will be enormous.

In a separate media summary, it says “big increases” in capital spending will be needed to make it work.

These are necessary to install renewable energy generating capacity “on a massive scale”, modernise electricity grids, transform goods and public transport, and improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings.

“These [costs] will grow over the next 25 years, from about $1,4-trillion to about $4,7-trillion a year.”

By 2040, however, the investment would start to pay off.

“[It] begins to pay off around 2040, when the savings start to outweigh the costs. If oil prices rise faster than predicted and we factor in the costs of climate change and the impact of fossil and traditional fuels on public health, the payoff occurs much earlier,” it says.

Fossil fuels
Currently, the world derives more than 80% of the energy it uses from fossil fuels. However, according to International Energy Agency figures, production from known oil and gas reserves will fall by between 40% and 60% by 2030.

Currently, renewable sources account for only 13% of the world’s energy provision.

On how the transition might be financed, the report suggests this come, in part, from “ambitious cap-and-trade regimes, nationally and internationally”.

These should cover all large polluters, such as coal-fired power stations and energy-intensive industries.

“Setting a high price on carbon will help to encourage investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as reducing emissions.”

It also calls for a “level playing field” for renewable energy ventures.

“Feed-in tariffs should be extended, with similar schemes introduced for renewable heating. We need to end direct and hidden subsidies to the fossil fuel and nuclear sectors, but without increasing energy prices for the poorest.”

The report says politicians need to clearly support renewable energy and energy efficiency, and create supportive legislation.

“Throughout the world, national legislation needs to overcome the bias towards the energy status quo ... ” it says.

Worthington said the Ecofys energy scenario contained in the report was based on currently proven technology, but conceded that to make it work would require “very profound changes” in the way the world worked.—Sapa