October 26, 2020 at 10:45 am

The energy system by 2050 can be completely transformed from where it is today, but we will need to really pick up the pace

By Sandesh Ilhe

The energy system by 2050 can be completely transformed from where it is today, but we will need to really pick up the pace. We need to go from adding 20 or so gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar a year to around 130 GW a year for the next 30 years. This article goes through the numbers.

There are a number of paths to get us to a 100% carbon free energy system by 2050, but they will all be some combination of 5 main ingredients:

  • Green the grid — end the use of fossil fuel on the grid.
  • Electrify everything — end the use of fossil fuel for everything else, usually providing superior electric alternatives.
  • Invest in energy efficiency — especially low income.
  • Implement aggressive carbon price to guide innumerable private and public sector decisions.
  • Make public sector investments in research and in removing barriers to the transition.

As mentioned in my earlier articles, I prefer an economy-wide price on fossil fuels similar to that developed in the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividends Act (EICDA), a bill in the US House of Representatives. The EICDA calls for a carbon fee starting at $15 a ton and rising at a rate of either $10 or $15 a year, the rate of increase depending on whether certain targets are met. All proceeds are placed in a fund separate from the US Treasury and are promptly distributed to US households as a dividend. Exports and imports are subject to a border carbon adjustment to protect US industry and to encourage trading partners to adopt a similar fee on carbon.

I’ve concluded that this carbon fee plus strategic investments in research and in removing barriers will lead to increasing energy efficiency, greening the grid, and ending direct fossil fuel use. The economic incentives will be massive, the hand of government will help in a “surgical” way to ease the way, and the technological trends are already in place to make this whole enterprise come together toward a complete energy system transformation. The transformation is likely to happen even without the fee and the public investment, but the transformation will be too slow and would likely happen so much later in this century that our fight against climate change would be severely hampered.

This is now my 6th article in CleanTechnica on this general subject, and my third in a series illustrating how the energy system might evolve. I continue to refer to far more sophisticated academic studies, which I will reference as the 2035 Report and Jacobson below, by developing my own spreadsheets and reasonable assumptions as sort of a “thought experiment” to provide a “reasonableness test” on the more sophisticated studies.

The 2035 Report discusses how a 90% green grid might make more sense than a 100% green grid in an interim year like 2035. Jacobson shows that a massive uptick in wind and solar investments will be needed to have a 100% green grid by 2050 and to electrify 100% of non-electric energy uses by that time. Despite the massive investments needed, the resulting electric system would have slightly lower electric rates going forward than the system that we have today, with far fewer social costs for pollution-related health problems and overall climate impacts.



Sandesh Ilhe

With an Engineers degree in Advanced Database Management and Information Security, Sandesh brings the deep understanding of the digital world to the table. His articles reflect the challenges and the complexities that come along with every disruption in the industry. He carries over six years of experience on working with websites and ensuring that the right article reaches the right reader.

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