Access to energy is vital for our economies, but energy is one of the main sources of the greenhouse gas emissions putting our climate at risk. It follows that we need to transition to a low-carbon, renewable energy mix. That aspiration is frequently debated — at times encouraged, often mocked — but it bears emphasizing: the energy revolution is already underway.

Greenpeace, the German Space Agency (DLR), and the European Renewable Energy Council — representing over 400,000 renewable energy workers — joined forces back in 2007 and have since published more than 40 global, regional, and national Energy [R]evolution scenarios. Each dives deep into a country’s current energy demand and supply structure and develops a renewable energy strategy, unfolding in 10 year steps up to 2050.

The most recently published version of the global energy [r]evolution (June 2010, which included 14 brand new national and regional scenarios and identified investment needs as well as employment impacts) shows that saving the climate is still within our reach. But politicians need to stop talking and start leading, so engineers and workers can finally get building.

energy [r]evolution - global co2 emissions

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Despite scary looking articles about the “gobsmackingly gargantuan” challenge facing the renewable energy industry, the good news is that they are already tackling it. The European Photovoltaic Industry Association issued a report at the beginning of this month stating that global solar PV capacity could grow from over 36 GW at the end of 2010 to close to 180 GW by 2015, and has potential to reach up to 350 GW by 2020.

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A similar report from the Global Wind Energy Council last year showed how wind could meet 12 percent of global power demand by 2020, and up to 22 percent by 2030. In fact, 2010 saw the global wind industry install two wind turbines an hour — a total of 36,000 MW. The photovoltaic industry installed at the same time slightly more photovoltaic modules — close to 37,000 MW.

In order to achieve 95 percent renewable power generation by 2050, projected wind installations need to be five times higher than today, solar PV six times higher. Seem a lot? Maybe, but in light of the double digit expansion in both industries in the past five years, the Energy [R]evolution projections seem if anything too conservative.

energy [r]evolution - 2009 in Europe

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Renewable energy is likely to be a key industry in 2050, like the IT or car industries today. Millions of people will work to save the climate, avoid nuclear waste, and to build up a sustainable energy supply. Not a bad outlook at all.

Need more proof? Governments are already heavily investing in the energy revolution. In 2009, China overtook the U.S. to become the largest investor in clean energy. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, China invested $34.6 billion in 2009, compared to $18.6 billion invested by the U.S.

If this growth is sustained — and there is no reason it shouldn’t be — our seemingly “gobsmackingly gargantuan” energy challenge becomes much more reasonable than putting a man on the moon in the sixties.

If we also get smart about the way we use energy and stop wasting it, we will be half way to ensuring our green supplies cover our needs. Exploitation of all technical potential for electrical efficiency (home insulation, consumer good efficiency standards), structural changes in the way energy is produced (moving away from large centralized power stations towards a decentralized energy system), and energy efficient transport modes (mass update of public transport systems, higher efficiency cars and trucks) are all needed.

energy [r]evolution - global energy demand

If you add global renewable energy potential and smart energy use, there is no need to increase use of dirty and dangerous nuclear reactors. In the year of the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, it seems archaic to look to an energy production system that still has no safe or permanent way of disposing of its highly radioactive waste as a solution.

Even in developed countries with an established nuclear infrastructure, it takes at least a decade from the decision to build a reactor to the delivery of its first electricity, and often much longer. Even if the world’s governments decided to implement strong nuclear expansion now, only a few reactors, if any, would generate electricity before 2020.

The so-called “3rd generation” nuclear reactors being built in Finland and France right now are several years behind schedule and far over budget. A better bet is to go high tech, which means truly green power like wind, solar PV, geothermal, CSP, and hydro coupled with smart grid systems.

Even the International Energy Agency, normally a friend of nuclear power, finds that the combined potential of efficiency savings and renewable energy can cut emissions over 10 times more by 2050.

The kind of radical change we need in our energy system to tackle climate change might be a gargantuan challenge, but it’s nothing the renewable energy industry can’t deliver. We can do it. The question is whether our politicians and policymakers will.



Want to find out more? Read Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution scenario, which gives more details on how all the above can be implemented. (The 260 page report is great for energy geeks; others might prefer the short version.) This scenario is increasingly recognized by international institutions like the IEA as one of the most feasible energy scenarios to avoid climate change.

In the report, three scenarios up to the year 2050 are outlined: a reference scenario, an Energy [R]evolution scenario with a target to reduce energy related CO2 emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels, and an advanced Energy [R]evolution which envisages a drop of more than 80 percent by 2050.