Starting the Conversation: A Global Renewable Energy Future

March 2011

“I’ve always enjoyed looking at big, future, grand analytical models,” ITS-Davis research scientist Mark A. Delucchi muses. Known for his lifelong devotion to modeling lifecycle emissions and social costs, Delucchi never imagined that the project he would undertake almost two years ago with Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson would create such a global stir. But it has.

windmills

Their findings, that by 2050 we could power the globe exclusively with renewable power—and do it cost-effectively assuming the political will—have landed the two at the center of a discussion that is both an intriguing academic exercise and an intense political debate.

The discussion began with a November 2009 Scientific American article. The exercise grew into a full-fledged research project culminating in a two-part series of papers published in December in Energy Policy. Since then, Delucchi and Jacobson have talked to reporters from around the globe about their vision for a clean energy future they call “WWS” for wind, water and solar. They say all new global energy could be supplied by WWS by 2030 and all existing energy could be converted to WWS by 2050.

Pipe dream? No. It’s a conversation-starter framed around an idea to be taken seriously.

“We wanted to say, ‘look, we’ve done a first cut,’” Delucchi explains. “We’ve looked at some of these issues that people have had concerns about, shown plausibly that they’re not technical or economic show-stoppers and in fact might not be problems at all.”

The WWS scenario purposely excludes biofuels and nuclear power. “We picked what we consider the least controversial and least damaging in terms of global pollution, land use, water, and food competition issues. We show that a WWS world is feasible without biofuels and nuclear power, and without technological breakthroughs.”

water

To power the globe in 2030 with 100% renewables, the researchers estimate 11.47 trillion watts (TW) of power will be needed. That’s about 30% less than the projected global energy demand of 16.92 TW in the U.S. Energy Information Administration base case and even less than today’s global energy demand of 12.5 TW. The EIA base case assumes increased global demand due to increases in economic activity and population. Even accounting for these increases, their 2030 WWS scenario requires less energy supply because of efficiency, the researchers find. We can do more with less because electric end-use devices are more efficient than heat engines for converting energy into power. Changes in policies also play an important role in reducing demand and improving energy-use efficiency.

Policy and politics present the biggest barriers to a WWS future. There is much inertia, caution, and built-in resistance, Delucchi says. “This future world would look a lot different than the current world—who’s building it, who’s operating it, who’s getting benefits, and who’s paying the upfront costs. It can be hard to make big changes if the beneficiaries and losers are different from today.”

The researchers estimate three core cost factors: full capital costs amortized over the life of the system, operating costs, and external costs. Together, the three compose “social costs.” Operating costs, Delucchi notes, are relatively predictable, while lifetime amortized capital costs present an interesting study. Due to lower operating and maintenance costs on WWS, they find wind power could be competitive on a private cost basis, with solar PV projected plant costs coming down significantly by 2030. Where the cost equation really gets interesting, Delucchi adds, is when we consider social costs.

“If you consider social costs, WWS looks even better. On a social lifetime cost basis, the cost of electricity will be not more than and will likely be less than the cost of traditional sources.”

The economics of transportation are more challenging because more systemic changes are needed. Still, the researchers find that by 2030, electric light-duty transportation will be roughly comparable to gasoline on a cost per-mile basis. In the goods-moving sectors, trucks, buses, trains, and ships using hydrogen fuel cells could have a lifetime social cost comparable to that of petroleum-fueled modes.

solar

There’s no question, the WWS future would require significant investments. For example, we need to expand greatly the transmission infrastructure to accommodate the new power systems. We also need to expand production of battery-electric and hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles, hydrogen-fuel-cell ships, liquefied hydrogen aircraft, air- and ground-source heat pumps, electric resistance heating, and hydrogen production for high-temperature processes.

Indeed, there is much to do and further R&D is warranted. Delucchi is particularly interested in exploring four topics: the cost of setting up a system where electric vehicle batteries are used for temporary grid support; requirements for certain rare-earth materials; costs of implementing WWS technology in transportation sectors other than light-duty ground vehicles; and costs of system design and integration.

He will have an opportunity to explore this work under the Institute’s NextSTEPS Program, the continuation of the successful Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS) Program. As part of the NextSTEPS research team, Delucchi will contribute to a body of public-domain research that builds on the STEPS Program data to create practical visions and strategies for future fuels and vehicles.

“I do it because it’s interesting to me and I think it’s useful. Plus, I’m finding this is a topic that’s interesting to people.”