I have written before about the actual policy proposals supported by Greta Thunberg and the Global Climate Strike initiative, which they see as necessary in order to “save the planet”. Perhaps the best known of the lot is the requirement that all energy produced by 2030 (or in 11 years’ time) come from renewables. “100% by 2030” sure sounds like a great slogan, it seems pretty concrete, and neatly ties with the claims we’re only years away from a civilisation-destroying ecological catastrophe unless we take action now.
But what does 100 per cent of energy from renewables by 2030 actually mean in practice?
In 2018, the world energy consumption (in electricity) was 13,864.9 million tonnes of oil equivalent, an increase of 2.9 per cent on 2017 (the average yearly increase in the decade prior has been 1.5 per cent, since 2000 over 2 per cent).
Of that total, 4,664.1 mtoe was generated from oil, 3,309.4 from natural gas, 3,772.1 from coal, 611.3 from nuclear, 984.8 from hydro, and 561.3 from renewables (mostly wind and solar). So, of 13.9 billion tons of oil equivalent of electricity consumed worldwide, 11.7 billion was generated from burning fossil fuels. Only 4 per cent came from renewables, or just over 11 per cent if hydro-electricity is included – hydro is technically a renewable source of energy, but Greta and her associates oppose large scale hydro projects, presumably as being too destructive to the environment and too disruptive of local communities.
If the 1.5 annual growth rate in electricity consumption continues, by 2030 the annual electricity consumption worldwide will be 16,597.6 mtoe.
By 2030, hydro will produce 1,326 mtoe, based on the average annual growth rate of 2.8 per cent (the average for 2007-17). If Greta would have her way, the rest of the 16,597.6 mtoe of electricity (or 15,271 mtoe) would have to be generated by renewables exclusively, the world having eliminated all fossil fuels and nuclear. Seeing that 561.3 mtoe already is today, that’s 14,710.3 mtoe of extra renewable capacity that’s not here today.
The rate of technological development in efficiency is of course an unknown, so it’s difficult to predict how much better solar and wind might be at generating electricity in 2030 than they are now – so this calculation has a caveat of using the current capacity; future capacity will no doubt be better, even if we don’t know how much better.
To generate 1 mtoe of electricity today requires a wind farm with an installed capacity of between 1,900 and 2,800 MW (depending on wind conditions), let’s say average of 2,350 MW, which amounts to around 1,175 wind turbines (most commercial wind turbines are around 2MW) spread over an area of between 260 and 360 square miles of land (let’s say an average of 310 square miles).
To generate the same 1 mtoe of electricity from solar requires a PV power plant with an installed capacity of between 3,300 and 5,400 MW (depending on sunlight conditions), let’s say average of 4,350 MW, occupying between 45 and 75 square miles (let’s say an average of 60 square miles).
There are 4,104 days left until the end of 2030.
Hence, to achieve the new renewables electricity production capacity of 14,710.3 mtoe by 2030, every day from today till 31 December 2030 we need to add to the world generating capacity:
- A new wind farm with 4,212 wind turbines, covering the area of 1,111 square miles, or
- A new PV power plant covering 215 square miles
That’s, I repeat, every day.
So – this translates to 17.3 million new wind turbines, covering the area of 4,560,193 square miles. That’s a bit less than the land area of the United States and India combined. Or a solar farm covering the land area of 882,618 square miles, or slightly less than the equivalent of Alaska and Texas. To make us 100 per cent renewable by 2030.
(Forget for a moment that wind and solar provide intermittent power and no technology exists today to enable us to store all the electricity thus generated so it could provide the base power.)
Then there is the cost. Since the set-up cost for 2MW of wind power is around $3.5 million in the United States, the cost of building a wind farm with 17.3 million turbines would be nearly US$60.5 trillion. And since the set-up cost for 1MW of solar is around $1 million in the United States, the cost of building a solar farm with the necessary 63.9 million MW would be around US$63.9 trillion, so a similar price tag to the wind farm, give or take a lazy few trillion dollars.
This is just the direct cost of constructing the new electricity production infrastructure – the total costs to the economy of “100% by 2030” would, of course, be higher. Not the least think of the cost of storage capacity, which is at the moment unquantifiable. But perhaps the highest immediate cost would be higher energy prices for as long as power generated from renewables is more expensive than from fossil fuels.
As mentioned above, the caveat applies – technology becomes more efficient and cheaper over time, and this would no doubt happen to wind and solar technology over the next eleven years. But how substantially?
As Bjorn Lomborg writes:
Ending global fossil-fuel use by 2028 is a flawed plan because green energy is simply not in a place in its development where it can take over what fossil fuels leave behind. A hard by-hook-or-crook transition would cause a real, global catastrophe, sending most of us back into back-breaking poverty. That’s why developing countries, especially, want more fossil-fuel power, not less; they want to lift more people into comfortable lives.
What we need is low-CO₂ energy that can outcompete fossil fuels – which would make everyone, including China and India, switch. This means dramatically increasing global investment into green research and development, something that we have conspicuously failed to do these past decades, exactly because activists have consistently demanded solutions before they are ready.
Instead of building more renewable capacity now, let’s instead spend even a fraction of what we would have for that purpose and instead finance more R&D into these and any other promising sources of renewable energy (including the storage technology). We most likely won’t be able to eliminate all fossil fuels by 2030*, but eventually we will and by then most likely at a far more reasonable price tag, without crashing the world economy.
* McKinsey, for example, recently estimates that by 2035, around half of energy around the world will still be generated from fossil fuels.