09 May 2011

IPCC on Renewable Energy

The IPCC has just issued a new summary for policy makers for a forthcoming special report on renewable energy that appears (indirectly and obliquely) to finally admit that we just do not have the technology necessary to achieve low targets for the stabilization of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (e.g., something like 450 ppm).   You can download a copy here in PDF.  Here are some key passages.

First the report tallies the current proportion of global energy supply from renewable sources (p. 5, compare my January 2011 estimate which was very similar):
On a global basis, it is estimated that RE accounted for 12.9% of the total 492 Exajoules (EJ)5 of primary energy supply in 2008 (Box SPM.2) (Figure SPM.2). The largest RE contributor was biomass (10.2%), with the majority (roughly 60%) being traditional biomass used in cooking and heating applications in developing countries but with rapidly increasing use of modern biomass as well.6 Hydropower represented 2.3%, whereas other RE sources accounted for 0.4%.
The report discusses its 164 scenarios for the future (p. 18):
More than half of the scenarios show a contribution from RE in excess  of a 17% share of primary energy supply in 2030 rising to more than 27% in 2050. The scenarios with the highest RE shares reach approximately 43% in 2030 and 77% in 2050.
If renewable energy provides only 27% of energy supply in 2050 (the IPCC median scenario value), then this would imply that to meet a low stabilization target something like 60% or more of global energy supply would have to be produced by some other carbon-free energy source, such as coal or gas with CCS or nuclear power, neither of which seems to be possible without major technological innovation.

The IPCC does note that there are obstacles -- both social and technological -- that must be overcome, and appears to make some key assumptions about how this might occur (p. 12 -- exact details will have to await the full report, but track records for forecasting technological innovation and social acceptance are not so good):
A variety of technology-specific challenges (in addition to cost) may need to be addressed to enable RE to significantly upscale its contribution to reducing GHG emissions.
Even to reach the scenarios envisioned the report assumes a massive investment in energy technologies, from well over $100 billion per year to $500 billion per year starting yesterday (p. 23):
The four illustrative scenarios analyzed in detail in this Special  Report estimate global cumulative RE investments (in the power generation sector only) ranging from USD2005 1,360 to 5,100 billion for the decade 2011 to 2020, and from USD2005 1,490 to 7,180 billion for the decade 2021 to 2030.
The bottom line is that the IPCC has provided a rather sobering outlook for the deployment of renewable technologies.  Perhaps most surprising of all is that despite the sobering outlook, the word "innovation" appears only once and the notion of "research" into energy technologies appears only twice.  The IPCC continues to show blinders when it comes to energy technology innovation (see, e.g., PDF).


  1. This report is excitedly discussed in the UK Guardian as "Renewable energy can power the world, says landmark IPCC study": http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/09/ipcc-renewable-energy-power-world

    However even they admit this could cost $7 trillion.

  2. -1-Thanks Jonathan, the Guardian puts an interesting spin on the report, one not really supported by the text of the SPM. I found this interesting as well:

    "Sven Teske, renewable energy director at Greenpeace International, and a lead author of the report, said: "This is an invitation to governments to initiate a radical overhaul of their policies and place renewable energy centre stage. On the run up to the next major climate conference, COP17 in South Africa in December, the onus is clearly on governments to step up to the mark.""

  3. The IPCC press release is consistent with the Guardian article: http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/press

    "Abu Dhabi, 9 May 2011 – Close to 80 percent of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies a new report shows."

    The emphasis is that the problem is political, rather than technical:

    "“With consistent climate and energy policy support, renewable energy sources can contribute substantially to human well-being by sustainably supplying energy and stabilizing the climate,” said Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, Co-Chair of Working Group III at the report launch. “However, the substantial increase of renewables is technically and politically very challenging” he added."

  4. I don't think Sven Teske is in the list of lead authors on the report you link to?

  5. I note further that the IPCC reports the most extreme RE penetration (77%) out of 164 scenarios but fails to report the investment level that accompanies this level, choosing instead to report only the costs for the 4 references scenarios. Presumably, the investment level for the most extreme scenario would be even higher (much?) than the highest reference scenario.

  6. -4-Jonathan

    Chapter 10

    See also:

  7. It doesn't appear to me that 'nuclear' is considered to be 'renewable' by the report.

    In related news...

    Coal prices at South Africa’s Richards Bay Coal Terminal, the continent’s biggest export facility for the fuel, rose to the highest in almost a month on stronger...Prices gained 0.3 percent to $123.93 ...They’ve risen 33 percent in the past 12 months.

  8. -1- Jonathan

    Isn't $7T consistent with what has been said for quite a while now? About 1% of global GDP. I seem to remember Richard Alley using that figure as long as 2 years ago.

  9. "The largest RE contributor was biomass (10.2%), with the majority (roughly 60%) being traditional biomass used in cooking and heating applications in developing countries but with rapidly increasing use of modern biomass as well"

    Note that wood for heat is a desirable technology even in developed countries.., e.g.,

    could it be that it is not a "hot" enough (so to speak) technology fadwise to get the attention it deserves? If we were to build upon proven technologies, wood would be right up there...IMHO

  10. The FT has a nice news article on the IPCC report:


  11. Wonderful . . . how many hundreds of billions of precious dollars have been flushed down the AGW public policy toilet to get to this blinding flash of the obvious?

    Any 10 year old with a pencil and simple arithmetic came to the same conclusion years ago.

    The Opportunity Cost of the great Fear Mongering & Hairy Scary Global Warming Scam will someday be calculated and it won't be a nice story.

  12. Roger,

    Why did you leave out the last sentence on the cost estimates? You know, where it says:

    "The annual averages of these investment needs
    are all smaller than 1% of the world GDP."

    And not to be a nit-picker but I count at least 6 instances of 'research', like here:

    "Public resesarch and development (R&D) investments in RE technologies are most effective when complemented by other policy instruments, particularly deployment policies that simultaneously enhance demand for new technologies. Together, R&D and deployment policies create a positive feedback cycle, inducing private sector investment. Enacting deployment policies early in the development of a given technology can accelerate learning by inducing private R&D, which in turn further reduces costs and provides additional incentives for using the technology."

  13. -13-Marlowe Johnson

    The link is provided so that readers can access the full text of the article, an excerpt will invariably leave something out, no?

    On "research" that is of course why I wrote: "the notion of "research" into energy technologies" ... I am less interested in the use of the word than a specific usage.


  14. Roger,

    I just read the SPM, and I just don't find the admission that you see, namely that the technologies don't yet exist that we would need. Indeed I see strong statements to the contrary, pointing to the technical potentials for the existing technologies being there, and the (largely institutional) challenges to integration being important and big, but not insurmountable. All of which seems like non-surprises. So where do they admit it?

    - Tony Patt

  15. -15-Tony

    Thanks .. did you catch the "indirectly and obliquely" bit? ;-)

    I will restate this post and the following one in a nutshell:

    1. Median scenario 27% RE by 2050
    2. 4 reference scenarios with costs up to >$12 trillion to 2030 (they don't say what the $$ for the 77% RE scenario is, but surely higher than the reference, no?)
    3. Heavy reliance on "primitive" biofuels throughout
    4. ~1.5 left without energy access
    5. Various assumptions (unknown until report comes out) about pace of innovation and resultant effects on cost curves

    I add up 1-5 and get that we don't currently have the technology.

    Do you read it differently? If so, I'd be curious how, specifically.


  16. Roger,

    On a related note, you may find this recent presentation by BP to be of interest. If you look at their policy case vs reference case (slide 66), you'll see that they still believe that there is a significant gap needed to reach a 450ppm pathway. The question then, is do you need more technology R&D to close the gap (hopefully) or more agressive deployment+efficiency+carbon pricing policies. I think I now how you'd anwser :)

  17. Tony Patt responds by email with a request to post:

    "I discussed your assertion with a colleague of mine on the SPM author team, and he was also puzzled by your interpretation. He agreed with me (and with my reading of the SPM) that there certainly are challenges, that these are most clearly in the area of integration, and that the challenges are some poorly understood combination of technical and institutional, with tradeoffs between them.

    If we go to your specific argument, it seems more about scalability and costs:

    1. Median scenario 27% RE by 2050
    2. 4 reference scenarios with costs up to >$12 trillion to 2030 (they don't say what the $$ for the 77% RE scenario is, but surely higher than the reference, no?)
    3. Heavy reliance on "primitive" biofuels throughout
    4. ~1.5 left without energy access
    5. Various assumptions (unknown until report comes out) about pace of innovation and resultant effects on cost curves

    My reaction to this, and my colleague's reaction as well, is that it is important to understand what is behind the scenarios, as we all of course already know. The results of the scenario model runs depend to some degree on assumptions about cost curves going into the optimization, but to a much larger extent on assumed integration constraints. We'll have to wait until 31 May, but my guess is that the median scenario has fairly strong integration assumptions (my hunch would be an inability to go above 15% intermittent generating capacity without huge spinning reserves). That keeps you to a fairly low RE component overall, forces you to have a lot of biofuels, and I guess forces you to a lot of CCS, which is more expensive than wind and will probably be more expensive than CSP and even PV within the timeframe of the models. Anyway, that is my hunch. If that is the case, then the argument again is that there are huge challenges, which are either institutional or technical. Solving either challenge to push back the integration constraint probably gets you a lot more RE at a lower cost, with less biofuels. In terms of the lack of energy access, I have no idea. I can only guess that is driven by assumptions of available international finance, which is again an institutional issue rather than a technical one.

    Where does my logic fall apart?"

  18. -18-Tony

    Thanks ... I don't see much to quibble with from this, but I'd have a hard time concluding from this that technological innovation is unnecessary. Quite the opposite.