Renewables are growing exponentially, RMI has shown. The shift is transformative, but also widely undercounted. The International Energy Agency’s latest findings — on renewables’ rise and oil demand peaking — add urgency to this transition.
There is as much naysaying about the clean energy transition as there are ways to accelerate it. The excuses spread by detractors, pessimists, and companies trying to protect their polluting businesses abound: “Wind and solar take up too much land. We don’t have enough critical minerals. The transition to clean energy will be too expensive.” The list goes on and on.
At RMI, we have long been optimists, centered around our co-founder Amory Lovins’ philosophy of Applied Hope. Applied Hope doesn’t ignore the challenges of reaching net zero by 2050 to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but it does recognize the rapid change in technology and policy in recent years. Our own research has shown that the global transition to clean electricity and electric vehicles is happening at an exponential rate.
The good news is that a recent report from the International Energy Agency reinforces this point, putting to rest a lot of the myths propagating about the clean energy transition. Most of these can be overcome. Looking ahead, we should assume continued exponential growth of clean technologies, not the stagnation of business of usual, when crafting outlooks on the future of energy.
The IEA’s latest Net Zero Roadmap finds that the continuity of current growth trends would see electric vehicles account for two-thirds of car sales by 2030 and for solar and wind to be 40 percent of electricity supply, very similar to the research that RMI just published.
Most notably, the IEA busts 10 prominent myths that are misleading society about the energy transition. We highlight them here.
- The energy transition is cheaper than “business as usual.” Conventional thinking argues that the capital costs of the energy transition are too high. But you also need to look at the costs of the fuel too — fossil fuels are expensive and renewables are free. The IEA looked at both capital costs and operational costs and noted that when you combine them, the energy transition will cost $12 trillion less than the IEA’s business as usual scenario. So whilst capital costs are higher, the ongoing savings from high fossil fuel prices more than outweigh this. In short, saving the planet is cheaper than destroying it. And the net zero scenario will mean lower energy prices for consumers.
- We are building enough grids. Conventional thinking looks at the opposition to the building of new grids, but doesn’t count the successes, those areas where the grid does get built. The IEA takes a dispassionate look at the totals. They calculate that we need to build 1.25 million miles of grids every year versus the average for the last 5 years of 1.2 million miles a year that we did actually build. In spite of all the opposition to change, we are in fact building 95 percent of the amount that is required. That final 5 percent is not easy, but it is certainly achievable.
- Carbon removal is not an excuse for inaction. The IEA note that it is much cheaper not to put the emissions in the air in the first place than to try to take them out later. Delayed action allowing more emissions would cost $1,300 billion per annum to remove the excess carbon from the air in the second half of the century; that is 50 percent more than we invest today on oil and gas capital expenditure.
- We have the technology. In 2021, the IEA calculated that we only had 50 percent of the technology that was required in 2050 to get to net zero. In 2023 that increased to 65 percent as the result of innovation in a range of areas, from batteries to green steel. As is so often the case, necessity is proving the mother of invention, and it is reasonable to expect that we will continue to increase the range of technology solutions rapidly over the next few years.
- We have enough land. Even if you take the most pessimistic way to calculate land requirements for solar and wind, we would require a maximum of 2.5 percent of available land. In fact, as noted by many others, this number hugely overstates the land use by counting the space between wind turbines, even though that space can be used for crops. However, even then it is clear that land availability is not an insoluble impediment to deploying renewables.
- Stranded assets are coming. Even if we stop building fossil fuel infrastructure today, many fossil fuel power plants and industrial assets will not be needed, and some existing oil and gas wells may be stranded. Already, $3.6 trillion is committed to building out fossil fuel infrastructure above the requirements of net zero.
- The supply chain for renewables is being built out. Factories are already being built to produce every year over 1,000 gigawatts (GW) of solar and 10,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of batteries by 2030, the key building blocks of the renewable economy. This is driven by the hunt for industrial advantage in the industries of the future because business knows that you have to be in it to win it.
- More jobs. Of the 65 million people working in the energy sector, half already work in clean energy. The expansion of the renewable systems will create far more jobs than are lost in the fossil fuel systems. The IEA calculate that by 2030 there will be 30 million new jobs in the clean energy economy versus 13 million jobs lost in fossil fuels. Moreover, the jobs will go to those who seize the opportunities of the renewable era.
- Less resources for a renewable economy. They calculate that the total amount of resources needed for a renewable economy is two thirds less than those required to run the current fossil fuel economy. The reason why is that electrons and the infrastructure needed to move them around is much lighter than the 15 billion tonnes of fossil fuels we use ever year.
- Renewables enable justice. Renewable technologies such as minigrids and cookstoves are the foundation of solutions to ensure that by 2030 we get electricity to the 775 million people who lack it and clean cooking to the 2,400 million who do not have it. They help to reduce premature deaths from air pollution by 3.6 million people every year, mainly in the emerging and developing economies.
The IEA’s 2023 update to the Net Zero Roadmap embraces the prospect of a net zero future with enthusiasm, recognizing that it is an increasingly credible scenario in a warming world witnessing spectacular exponential growth and cost declines in renewable technologies. RMI’s research points to the same lightning speed of the energy transition, especially in the growth of solar power, batteries, and electric vehicles.
Now, are you thinking exponentially?