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Latest Low-Carbon Study Finds 100% Renewable Electricity Doable, Affordable

The latest scientific paper charting a course to a 100% renewable electricity system, now out in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Review, is largely a response to a previous study that questioned renewables’ ability to deliver grid reliability and stand up to severe weather.

It concludes that “it’s not only feasible to wean off coal, natural gas, and other polluting fuels by transitioning to renewable sources such as solar and wind power, it’s even cost-effective,” EcoWatch reports.

Last September, a critical review led by Australian scientist and nuclear advocate Benjamin Heard concluded there was “no empirical or historical evidence” that a 100% RE transition is possible. “The scientists in the current paper responded to each critique after reviewing dozens of existing studies and highlighting examples of successful grid operators around the world, from Denmark to Tasmania,” writes EcoWatch correspondent Lorraine Chow.

“While several of the issues raised by the Heard paper are important, you have to realize that there are technical solutions to all the points they raised, using today’s technology,” said lead author Tom Brown of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. “Furthermore,” added Christian Breyer of Lappeenranta University of Technology, “these solutions are absolutely affordable, especially given the sinking costs of wind and solar power.”

Researcher Brian Vad Mathiesen of Aalborg University pointed to the “persistent myths” that have accumulated around the discussion of 100% RE scenarios. “Our contribution deals with these myths one by one, using all the latest research. Now, let’s get back to the business of modelling low-cost scenarios to eliminate fossil fuels from our energy system, so we can tackle the climate and health challenges they pose.”

Heard tweeted his congratulations to the Brown team for getting their paper published in “a tough journal”. Brown acknowledged that “there is something about the way all this ‘possible and affordable’ stuff, under a little scrutiny, demands massive additional research, subsidies, far-reaching policies interrelated across economic sectors, market reforms, etc. AKA ‘political will’.”

In a post earlier this month, veteran Vox climate columnist David Roberts reviewed several other recent low-carbon scenario studies (including two summarized in The Mix), and listed the “big action items” that most or all of them inevitably rely on. The list included radical increases in energy efficiency and renewable energy, electrification of sectors and applications that currently depend on fossil fuels, and some reliance on negative emissions to close the gap between decarbonization efforts and the emission reductions needed to stabilize the global climate.

Roberts also noted that most rapid decarbonization studies focus almost exclusively on an energy transition—in contrast to the wider menu of options from initiatives like Project Drawdown. “Most current scenarios bank on a lot of BECCS [Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage] later in the century to make up for the carbon sins of the near past and near future,” he writes.

“One small complication in all this: There is currently no commercial BECCS industry. Neither the BE nor the CCS part has been demonstrated at any serious scale, much less at the scale necessary. (The land area needed to grow all that biomass for BECCS in these models is estimated to be around one to three times the size of India.)”

The new wave of scenarios aligns with Roberts’ argument that “maybe we could pull off a massive BECCS industry quickly. But banking on negative emissions later in the century is, at the very least, an enormous, fateful gamble. It bets the lives and welfare of millions of future people on an industry that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t yet exist.”

Then again, “accomplishing any one of these goals—a global carbon tax, maximized efficiency, an explosion of renewable energy, a wholesale revolution in agriculture, rapid reduction of non-CO2 GHGs, a rapid shift in global lifestyle choices, and successful measures to curb population growth—would be an enormous achievement.”

They’d all be needed to completely avoid BECCS and still hit a 1.5°C target. But Roberts says it’s still worthwhile to look at alternate pathways that minimize BECCS, given the “substantial and uncharted difficulties” the technology faces.