Dan Reicher, Nigel Jollands, Chris Flavin, Christian Kjaer, and Kelly Sims Gallagher at the Worldwatch side event at COP15 in Copenhagen.

Dan Reicher, Nigel Jollands, Chris Flavin, Christian Kjaer, and Kelly Sims Gallagher at the Worldwatch side event at COP15 in Copenhagen.

As Worldwatch Senior Researcher Janet Sawin and William Moomaw of Tufts University lay out in Worldwatch’s latest report, Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030, technologies available today can go a long way to addressing climate change, and we don’t need to replace fossil fuels unit by unit in order to reach a low-carbon energy future. In fact, we waste an enormous amount of energy today through the conversion of fossil fuels to energy services like light, heat, and mobility. Instead, we can bypass the losses that result from fossil fuel combustion through the use of renewable resources and energy efficiency opportunities, thus meeting the same level of energy services with far less and cleaner primary energy. And pairing energy efficiency with renewable energy creates four key synergies:

  • Efficiency improvements enable us to enjoy energy services, and to expand those services, without encouraging skyrocketing demands for energy. This also makes it easier, cheaper and faster for renewables to achieve a large share of total energy production and for society to reduce energy-related emissions.
  • Thermal processes like combustion, used in fossil fuel power generation and conventional cars, have inherent inefficiencies due to physics (e.g. Carnot cycle) which can be avoided through renewable energy processes.
  • Many renewable technologies, including solar PV, are well-suited for distributed generation. Distributed generation, which produces power close to the point of demand, can minimize the amount of electricity lost in the transmission of power from power plant to user.
  • Directly using energy from the sun through passive heating and lighting allows us to bypass the entire conversion of fuel to power or heat, and reduces the overall amount of energy needed for the services desired.

Furthering the discussion on renewable energy and efficiency, Worldwatch convened a gathering of energy efficiency and renewable energy experts at an official side event at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen last month, launching the Renewable Revolution report, made possible through the generous support of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP).

Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin framed the discussion with the need for a transformation of the current global energy system from one that is heavily reliant on fossil fuels to one that more fully utilizes the renewable resources and efficiency opportunities available now and in the near-term. In order to face the climate challenge head-on, we must put in place policies that encourage this evolution of the energy system on a global scale.

Christian Kjaer, Director of the Global Wind Energy Council, presented the expanding global wind industry as able and ready to contribute to a “zero-emitting power infrastructure.”  While the last decade saw the installation of about 27 GW of nuclear power, the wind industry installed the same amount of capacity in just one year, a result of growing political will and supportive renewable policies. And the amount of renewable power capacity being added into the global energy system each year has jumped from just 8 percent of new capacity additions in 2003 to 25 percent in 2009. Echoing a message in Worldwatch’s latest report, Kjaer pointed out that wind is but one of the renewable technologies needed in an integrated and diverse renewable energy future.

Nigel Jollands, Head of the Energy Efficiency Unit at the International Energy Agency, noted that the building and transportation sectors are the poorest-performing sectors with regards to efficiency; however, they are also the sectors with the greatest potential for improvements. Efficiency gains can open the window of opportunity for building and installing renewable capacity while also making it far easier for countries to achieve renewable energy targets. As Sawin and Moomaw note, this is true because improvements in energy efficiency slow demand growth and reduce the amount of renewable capacity required to meet that demand.

Dan Reicher, Director of Climate Change & Energy Initiatives at Google.org, made the analogy of retrofitting a home, where the first investment should be to optimize the efficiency to allow for proper sizing of renewable systems, such as PV on a rooftop. The same is true for vehicles, factories and elsewhere. Reicher called on the efficiency and renewables industries to work in tandem, and in order for these industries to produce results at the necessary scale, current investments must be vastly increased—the IEA estimates that $26 trillion in investments will be required through 2030 for global energy infrastructure, access to capital, and funding for clean energy research and development.

Built on the foundation of a serious price on carbon, policies are needed to not only overcome institutional and regulatory barriers to renewable energy and energy efficiency but also to drive the required revolution. Renewable Revolution also reminds policymakers to be strategic in phasing out the existing carbon-emitting power plants.

Kelly Sims Gallagher of Tufts University, a contributor to the report, highlighted some of China’s undertakings in the energy sector. By 2020, 15 percent of Chinese primary energy demand will be met with renewables, up from today’s 8 percent (mostly hydropower), and renewable technologies will make up 20 percent of total electricity capacity. In late 2009, China announced an energy intensity (unit of energy used per GDP) reduction target of 20-25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; however, it is important to recognize that these developments are within the context of China deriving roughly 70 percent of its energy from coal, compared to the global average of 27 percent. As Gallagher said, China’s future “depends not only on having sufficient supplies of energy to sustain its incredible rate of economic growth, but equally on its ability to manage energy demand growth without causing intolerable environmental damage.”

In the report, Sawin and Moomaw conclude, “We have a once-in-a-century opportunity to make a transformation from an unsustainable economy fueled by poorly distributed fossil fuels to an enduring and secure economy that runs on renewable energy that lasts forever. The energy choices made by policymakers and negotiators, and those made by all people during the next few years, will determine the energy future of much of the world for decades to come—and the future of the global climate and human civilization for centuries.”

For more information, download the report here.

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climate, Climate Change, COP15, Copenhagen, energy, energy efficiency, renewable energy