NEWS Despite Its Oil-​​Industry Past, Energy Transitions Commission Foresees A Full-​​Renewables Future

Despite Its Oil-​​Industry Past, Energy Tran­si­tions Com­mis­sion Fore­sees A Full-​​Renewables Future

by Jeff McMa­hon, based in Chicago. Fol­low Jeff McMa­hon on Face­bookGoogle PlusTwit­ter, or email him here.

Renew­ables could pro­vide nearly all the power in some regions in less than 20 years, reli­ably, and at a cost com­pet­i­tive with fos­sil fuels, accord­ing to a report released today by the Energy Tran­si­tions Commission.

The report’s strik­ing con­fi­dence in solar and wind is likely to sur­prise not only crit­ics of those tech­nolo­gies but also envi­ron­men­tal­ists, who greeted the com­mis­sion with skep­ti­cismwhen it was founded in 2015. The com­mis­sion was launched by Royal Dutch Shell and includes exec­u­tives from Shell, GE Oil and Gas, Australia’s BHP Bil­li­ton, Norway’s Sta­toil and other traditional-​​energy companies.

We believe that close to zero-​​carbon power sys­tems with very high lev­els of inter­mit­tent renew­able pen­e­tra­tion (up to 98% in coun­tries like Ger­many) could deliver reli­able power in many coun­tries at a max­i­mum of $70 per MWh by 2035,” the com­mis­sion states in its flag­ship report.



In 2015, Car­bon Tracker’s Anthony Hob­ley crit­i­cized the ETCbecause of its ini­tial goal to study how to fuel half the power sec­tor with zero-​​carbon energy sources by 2050, a path that Hob­ley said would put the world on course for 4˚C of warm­ing. The ETC appears to have raised its ambi­tions since.

World­wide, zero-​​carbon sources could rep­re­sent 80 per­cent of the global power mix by 2040, the com­mis­sion now says, with solar and wind com­pris­ing the major­ity of that. That still leaves 20 per­cent of the world power mar­ket to fos­sil fuels. But that’s a big drop from the cur­rent state of affairs, in which fos­sil fuels pro­vide about 80 per­cent of pri­mary energy production.

We are ambi­tious but real­is­tic,” said com­mis­sion chair­man Adair Turner, a British busi­ness­man, via email. “Despite the scale of the chal­lenges fac­ing us, we firmly believe the required tran­si­tion is tech­ni­cally and eco­nom­i­cally achiev­able if imme­di­ate action is taken.”

When I con­tacted Car­bon Tracker Mon­day, Hob­ley had not had an oppor­tu­nity yet to review the report or comment.

The report calls for reduc­ing CO2 emis­sions more rapidly than the Paris Agree­ment. Its reliance on solar and wind depends in part on its pro­jec­tion that the cost of bat­ter­ies will con­tinue to drop. But it stresses there are cheaper means than bat­tery stor­age to smooth out the inter­mit­tent per­for­mance of solar and wind. It cites a suite of tech­nolo­gies and tech­niques, including:

  • demand man­age­ment, espe­cially of industry

  • flex­i­ble elec­tric vehi­cle charging

  • load shift­ing between regions

  • auto­mated load shifting

  • bet­ter grid management

  • large-​​scale heat storage

  • dis­trib­uted ther­mal stor­age in the built environment

  • com­pressed air storage

  • hydro­gen storage

  • geo­logic storage

The com­mis­sion mod­eled the use of these tech­nolo­gies in Cal­i­for­nia and con­cluded that if Cal­i­for­nia builds a power sys­tem that relies nearly entirely on solar and wind, these lower-​​cost options could offer the sys­tem reli­a­bil­ity for almost half the cost of the tra­di­tional method of achiev­ing reliability—turning on gas-​​turbine plants.

Uni­ver­sity of Berke­ley energy pro­fes­sor Daniel Kam­men has been out­lin­ing a sim­i­lar scenario:

The dra­matic ramp up in solar resulted in the dra­matic real­iza­tion that a diverse, decen­tral­ized sys­tem can pro­vide the same crit­i­cal fea­tures that we think about with a base­load highly cen­tral­ized sys­tem,” Kam­men said last sum­mer. “Not tomor­row, but in the time frame that we need it, it’s absolutely there.”

It’s eas­ier to see how zero-​​carbon sources can con­quer 80 per­cent of the energy mar­ket, the com­mis­sion con­cedes, than the last 20 per­cent. If the world is to keep the global aver­age tem­per­a­ture from ris­ing more than 2º C, the report says, four energy tran­si­tions have to be pur­sued simul­ta­ne­ously in each country:

  1. Decar­boniza­tion of the power sec­tor com­bined with elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of trans­porta­tion, build­ings and industry.
  2. Decar­boniza­tion of activ­i­ties that can­not be afford­ably elec­tri­fied, by using bio­fu­els or hydro­gen for heat­ing or by cap­tur­ing car­bon emissions.
  3. Improve­ments in energy pro­duc­tiv­ity and efficiency.
  4. Opti­miza­tion of fos­sil fuels within the con­straints of the world’s over­all car­bon bud­get, includ­ing the con­tin­ued replace­ment of coal with nat­ural gas, an end to methane leaks and methane flar­ing at oil fields, and devel­op­ment of car­bon cap­ture and storage.

To achieve these tran­si­tions, the world needs to change the way it finances energy, and it needs “coher­ent and pre­dictable” pol­icy from gov­ern­ments, the report says, rec­om­mend­ing a price on carbon.

“A mean­ing­ful car­bon price would help drive a faster and more cer­tain transition.”


By Jeff McMa­hon, based in Chicago. Fol­low Jeff McMa­hon on Face­bookGoogle PlusTwit­ter, or email him here.

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