Is a Future With High Renewable Electricity Production Really Possible?

There continues to be a large amount of skepticism as to whether or not a promising renewable electricity future exists using solar and wind generation. Peter Bronski, with Rocky Mountain Institute, explains why the future is indeed promising and highlights the progress that has already been made in the field.

| June 06, 2013

Solar panels on cottage

The 'Renewable Electricity Futures Study' points to an 80-plus percent renewables future, in which 60 percent of electricity generation comes from wind and solar; hydro provides about 12 percent, with biomass and geothermal making up the remainder.

Photo by Fotolia/warrantbuffet

Reposted with permission from Rocky Mountain Institute.

In recent weeks and months, there’s been much to celebrate about renewable energy and the electricity system—wind and solar in particular are continually breaking records for installed capacity and actual generation. But amidst the celebratory fanfare there’s also been an undercurrent of skepticism—skepticism that a high renewables future could be here soon, or is even possible at all.

Last month the Washington Post ran a skeptical opinion piece by Matthew Stepp, senior policy analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. One month earlier, another skeptical article called renewables a “pipe dream.” Last year IEEE published “A Skeptic Looks at Alternative Energy,” which chastised the renewables movement for “wishful thinking” and suggested that a high renewables future for our electricity system, if it comes, is generations—not decades—away.

Such skeptics often point to a number of familiar criticisms: that high penetrations of renewables are not possible; that such a future requires major technological innovation; that it requires unreasonable amounts of energy storage to balance variable wind and solar; that it requires massive build-out of transmission infrastructure, biomass generation capacity, large-scale hydro, or all of the above; that it requires major investment that simply isn’t there; that it is uncompetitively costly (at least without large subsidies); that variable renewables will undermine the reliability of grid power.

Couple such skepticism with IEA’s recent report noting that renewables have yet to make a serious dent in the carbon intensity of the global energy system—on which fossil fuels seem to have a strangle hold—and it’d be easy to side with the skeptics, but they are wrong.

Renewables’ track record shows that they continue to outpace skeptics’ expectations. “People thought that maybe renewables would get to two percent. When they did that, people said maybe five percent. Then 10 percent,” says Hutch Hutchinson, managing director at RMI. “Renewables have been fighting and scratching the entire way. Now, there’s good analytical evidence that with some creativity and customary levels of reinvestment in our energy system, we can get to a high renewables future.”

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