Is it possible that the world could be powered by 100 percent renewable energy? A new study from Trinity College Dublin has shown that it is theoretically possible, but would require a global effort.
Led by Professor James Ward from the University of South Australia, the researchers investigated what changes are needed in our energy sources, as well as in our energy consumption, to achieve 100 percent renewability in a way that supports all of the planet.
“We present an alternative approach to estimating the spatial footprint of energy consumption, as this represents a major fraction of the ecological footprint (EF),” explained the study authors. “Rather than depicting the current lack of sustainability that comes from estimating a footprint based on uptake of carbon emissions, our proposed ‘Renewable Energy Equivalent Footprint’ (REEF) instead depicts a hypothetical world in which the electricity and fuel demands are met entirely from renewable energy.”
According to the researchers, the analysis shows that current human energy demands could theoretically be met by renewable energy and remain within the biocapacity of one planet.
“However, with current technology there is no margin to leave any biocapacity for nature, leading to the investigation of two additional scenarios: radical electrification of the energy supply, assuming 75% of final energy demand can be met with electricity, and adopting technology in which electricity is used to convert atmospheric gases into synthetic fuel.”
The research raises important questions about the potential conflict between land demands for renewable fuel production.
“Firstly, the high fuel needs of today’s high-income countries would have to be reduced as it would require an unsustainably vast amount of land to be covered with biomass plantations if we were to produce enough fuel to satisfy the same levels,” explained study co-author Luca Coscieme.
“Additionally, our research shows that we would need to radically ‘electrify’ the energy supply of such countries – including Ireland – with the assumption that these changes could supply 75% of society’s final energy demands. We would also need to adopt technology in which electricity is used to convert atmospheric gases into synthetic fuels.”
“We very much hope that the approach designed in this research will inform our vision of sustainable futures and also guide national planning by contextualising energy needs within the broader consumption patterns we see in other countries with energy and forest product consumption profiles that – if adopted worldwide – could theoretically be met by high-tech renewably derived fuels. Countries such as Argentina, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Spain are great examples in this regard.”
“Even so, the success of this green ideal will be highly dependent on major future technological developments, in the efficiency of electrification and in producing and refining new synthetic fuels. Such a scenario is still likely to require the use of a substantial – albeit hopefully sustainable – fraction of the world’s forest areas.”
The study is published in the journal Energies.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer