Is a 100 Percent Renewable Energy Target Truly Feasible?
Yesterday, the city of San Diego, California revealed its Climate Action Plan. The aggressive plan—which was drafted by former interim mayor Todd Gloria and revised by current mayor Kevin Faulconer—sets a date of 2050 for substantial greenhouse gas emission reductions. The more ambitious aspect, however, is the city’s goal of going 100% renewable by 2035.
Mayor Faulconer believes the plan makes sense both socially and economically.
“This plan provides a framework to create new jobs in the renewable energy industry with the installation of solar panels and electric vehicle charging stations,” Faulconer said at a press conference announcing the plan. “Together we will improve public health and air quality by reducing carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other particulate matter, and we will decrease San Diego's dependence on imported water.”
San Diego isn’t the only one jumping on board the 100% target train, either. Cities, countries, and even companies from around the world are looking to go 100% renewable in the not-so-distant future.
In our magazine this month, we feature a report that believes the entire state of California has the potential to go 100% renewable.
While all of these sound like great outcomes, one has to wonder: is it more than just a pipe dream?
According to the Renewables 100 Policy Institute: absolutely.
The Renewables 100% Policy Institute is an advocacy group whose mission it is to “study and accelerate the global transition to 100% renewable energy.”
The institute has created Go 100%, which is a project that attempts hopes to act as a virtual hub for 100% renewable energy initiatives, offering tools such as ways to connect with supporters and interactive maps that show cities and projects shooting for 100%.
The institute believes that the reality of 100% renewable energy is a question of ‘when’ and ‘how,’ not ‘if.’
With more and more 100% renewable targets being announced, it would seem that is the case. And with larger organizations and nations coming on board, a renewable powered world would seem inevitable.
Not everyone is convinced, however.
Alan Y. Wayne, writing for The Harvard Crimson, believes that a 100% renewable energy target for the U.S. has one massive roadblock in its way.
“Regardless of political pressure (which many have blamed for our lack of renewables), having a fully renewable-powered United States is physically impossible—and you can blame the sorry state of the U.S. energy grid,” he writes.
Wayne notes that there are two massive problems with the gird: the lack of electricity storage and the inability to transmit electricity over long distances.
While this may be less of an issue for smaller portions of the country, it still raises very legitimate concerns: can our again energy infrastructure handle the shift to 100%, and if not, what will it take to get there?
As stated by the Renewables 100 Policy Institute, the transition to 100% renewable energy is more of question of ‘when’ and ‘how.’ As more announcements are made about transitions, it would seem we have some kind of answer to the ‘when.’
The big question that looms, however, is the ‘how.’
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere