Massive scale-up of solar and wind is essential to decarbonize economies by 2050, reports say


Transitioning to clean electricity as the main source of final energy represents the cheapest and most efficient way to decarbonize global economies, according to two new reports from the Energy Transitions Commission.

Rapidly falling costs of renewables and energy storage make it possible to achieve the required “massive expansion” of clean power systems at low cost, the reports said. However, wind and solar must grow from today’s 10% of total electricity generation to about 40% by 2030, and more than 75% by 2050.

As a result, annual wind and solar installations must grow by 5-7 times by 2030, and more than 10 times by 2050. They also must be joined by parallel deployment of other zero-carbon generation technologies (like hydro and nuclear), flexibility solutions, storage, and power networks to deliver zero-carbon power systems at scale.

In total, electricity could represent up to 70% of final energy demand by 2050, versus 20% today, with total electricity use expected to grow as much as 5 times in the coming decades, the reports said.

Electricity could represent up to 70% of final energy demand by 2050 versus 20% today.

The commission is a coalition of global energy producers, energy industries, financial institutions and environmental advocates, including ArcelorMittal, Bank of America, BP, Development Research Center of the State Council of China, EBRD, HSBC, Iberdrola, Ørsted, Shell, Tata Group, Volvo Group, and the World Resources Institute, among others.

The reports examine the feasibility of achieving a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy by 2050 and the actions required in the next decade to put this target within reach.

Clean hydrogen

The reports said that clean hydrogen will play a complementary role to decarbonize sectors where direct electrification is likely to be technologically challenging or prohibitively expensive, such as in steel production and long-distance shipping.

A net-zero GHG emissions economy by mid-century will likely need to use “about 500 to 800 million tons of clean hydrogen” per year, a 5-7-fold increase compared to hydrogen use today. Green hydrogen, produced via the electrolysis of water, is likely to be the most cost-competitive and the major production route in the long-term, due to falling renewable electricity and electrolyzer equipment costs. The reports said it also could account for roughly 85% of total production by 2050.

Public policy is “essential” to drive clean hydrogen adoption.

The reports highlighted how critical rapid ramp-up of production and use in the 2020s is to unlock cost reductions (bringing clean hydrogen costs below $2/kg) and to make mid-century growth targets achievable. However, even after clean hydrogen becomes less expensive than gray hydrogen, its use across industry and transport sectors will often still impose a “green cost premium” compared to current high-carbon technologies.

The reports said that public policy is “essential” to drive clean hydrogen adoption. Policymakers will also need to anticipate growing hydrogen transport and storage needs. In total, 85% of investments required to ramp-up hydrogen production is for renewable electricity provision. Additionally, on the order of $2.4 trillion ($80 billion per year) will be required between now and 2050 for hydrogen production facilities and transportation and storage.

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