Renewable power will become an indispensable part of the global energy mix by 2035, generating almost one-third of electricity on the planet, the International Energy Agency projected in its 2012 World Energy Outlook released Monday.
That will help cut carbon emissions, but it will also do much more, the IEA says. Bringing more renewables on-stream will also help countries to diversify their energy mix and cut down on imports, reduce the use of water resources, and curtail air pollution, the report says.
By 2035, there will be almost as much electricity generated from renewables as from coal, says the IEA, which analyzes energy data for the biggest industrialized nations.
To get there, subsidies for renewables will have to be carefully managed and consistent, the world's transmission system will have to be upgraded, and renewable power will have to be integrated with fast-growing gas-generated power, which will provide the base-line power to the more intermittent renewable electrical feed.
About half of all renewable electricity will come from hydro power, while a quarter will come from wind, and solar photovoltaics will represent about 7.5 per cent, the IEA says.
This scenario – which is based on the current policies and commitments set out by global governments – would mark a tripling of renewable electrical generation. But much more aggressive moves by policy makers would be needed if the world is to limit global warming to two degrees above preindustrial levels, the IEA says. For that to happen, fossil fuel subsidies would have to be chopped, huge investments would be needed in carbon capture and storage, and far more support would have to be given to energy-efficiency programs.
Indeed, energy efficiency is key to making the world energy scene more sustainable, the IEA says. If managed properly, it can provide "huge gains for energy security, economic growth and the environment."
The IEA's focus on energy efficiency is an important mind shift, said Keith Stewart, climate and energy co-ordinator at Greenpeace Canada. "Too often we just look at how to get more supply [of energy] and not how to use it smarter," he said.
The problem, Mr. Stewart said, it that "no one makes money by not selling something, and this is where governments need to step in." What is needed are tougher efficiency standards for buildings and new vehicles, and financial support for companies looking at new efficiency technology, he said.
The IEA report underlines the roles of policy makers in promoting energy efficiency, saying that existing government support falls "well short of tapping its full economic potential." Efficiency needs to be measured and reported better, so the gains are visible to consumers, and regulations are needed to prevent the sale of inefficient technology, it said.
The IEA's outlook for specific renewable sectors:
Hydro power: Hydro power is currently the biggest source of renewable electricity, and it will continue to hold that spot until 2035. There will be limited growth in developed countries, like Canada, because the best resources have already been developed. But China, India, Brazil, and other parts of Asia and Latin America, will see more projects.
Biofuels: Biofuels will be used far more widely in transportation including aviation – by 2035. Ethanol will be the most commonly used biofuel, although biodiesel will gain growth in freight transport. The United States will be the biggest market, while Brazil will have the highest proportion of biofuels – about one-third of all transport fuel.
Wind: Wind power will continue to grow rapidly because it is becoming more competitive with other sources of power, and government support will continue to be widespread. It will generate more than 7 per cent of all electricity by 2035, and about 20 per cent of Europe's power.
Solar: There will be 26 times as much solar photovoltaic electricity generated in 2035 compared to 2010, but that will represent just 2 per cent of all power generation.
Other: Geothermal power, tidal and wave power; and concentrated solar power (where the sun's heat is used to run generators) will all grow dramatically by 2035, but will still represent a tiny share of the overall renewables market.