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Transition to 100 percent renewable energy is cost efficient

Global warming, air pollution and social instability are all challenges that the new roadmaps to a renewable energy system address. A new report from Stanford university1 presents different scenarios in which 143 countries transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Such a transition would reduce energy demand by 57 percent and decrease social costs by 91 percent compared to a business-as-usual scenario (BAU). The 143 nations included represent more than 99.7 percent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions. This transition would make it possible to stay below 1.5 degree of global warming and reduce the air pollution that causes approximately 7 million premature deaths every year.

The calculations conclude that such a development would cost $6.8 trillion/year compared to $17.7 trillion/year for business-as-usual energy systems. These figures account for electricity, heating, cooling, hydrogen generation and storage, and transmission and distribution using annual private market costs. Thus, the transition costs 61 percent less than the BAU energy scenario.

However, the aggregate social cost (private together with health and climate expenses) of BAU energy is $76.1 trillion/year. The net present value of the capital costs of transitioning to renewable energy worldwide is $72.8 trillion for the entire transition period, from now until 2050.

These expenses will be covered by electricity sales and increased job opportunities. The presented Wind-Water-Solar scenario (WWS) creates 28.6 million more full-time jobs than the BAU scenario.

Besides the argument of expense, others argue that the material resources it will take to produce the WWS energy equipment could be a liability in their own right. However, the calculations show that the equipment will only consume 1 percent of the world’s annually produced steel and 0.4 percent of the concrete. The net carbon dioxide emissions from producing the materials needed would be approximately 0.014 percent of the annual current carbon dioxide emissions.

The technology that is needed for a 100 percent renewable energy transition already exist. According to the authors, the transition would be economically and technically feasible by 20302. However due to political, institutional and cultural obstacles 2050 is a more realistic target.

The calculations for how to reach 100 percent renewables by 2050 are made based on the US democratic party’s proposal, The Green New Deal. This plan calls for a launch of a “10-year mobilization” to reduce carbon emissions, by sourcing 100 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable and zero-emissions power, upgrading to more energy-efficient buildings, investing in electric vehicles and high-speed rails etc.

The first step in the study was to project 2016 end-use BAU energy in multiple energy sectors in 143 countries to 2050. The end-use energy of BAU 2050 was then electrified using renewable energy sources. When the 143 countries move from BAU to WWS energy, the 2050 annual average demand for end-use power decreases by 57.1 percent. This reduction is due to: efficiency gains from using WWS electricity over combustion (38.3 percent), eliminating energy in the mining, transporting and refining of fossil fuels (12.1 percent), and improvements in end-use energy efficiency and reduced energy use beyond those in the BAU case (6.6 percent).

Compared to previous studies on strategies and scenarios this study adds important factors and new perspectives. The main differences are the following:

First, socioeconomic costs include external costs not accounted for in market costs or prices. In this case the social costs can be air pollution mortality, morbidity and global warming damage. When it comes to political applicability a social cost analysis is of greater value than a private cost analysis alone as it presents a comprehensive view of the impacts of policies.

Second, other studies use the cost per unit energy rather than the aggregate energy cost per year. This has an important effect as a renewable energy system uses much less end-use energy than a business-as-usual system.

Two main issues that are often brought up in technical discussions on the transition to 100 percent renewable energy are storage and transmission. Regarding energy storage the report finds that the problems have already been solved. As a result of the decrease in energy demand by switching to renewable energy sources (see Figure 1) and developing the technologies already in play, storage will not be a limiting factor.

When it comes to grid congestion and new transmission, the study concludes that both the risk of congestion and the need for additional transmission are lower than previously thought. Even when the most conservative WWS scenario model is used together with the highest costs, the BAU scenario still has the highest expense. However, continent-scale grids will not be a solution for isolated nations such as Japan and South Korea. The study found that even when sticking to grid isolation, the costs of a renewable grid are lower than BAU.

Comprehensive road maps of this type naturally involve some uncertainties and sensitivities. Assuming perfect energy transmission, inconsistencies between load and resource datasets and projecting future energy use are some examples of the uncertainties. By modelling several scenarios with different levels of costs and climate damage several of the uncertainties are addressed. When it comes to accounting for extreme weather events the model includes these by measuring the variability of weather worldwide at a 30-second time resolution.

One of the authors explains3 that the aim of the study is to illustrate that there is no downside to making this transition, and to allay some of the fears that the transition would be too expensive. The evidence shows that the technology, resources and knowledge needed for the 100 percent renewable transition already exist.

Additionally, the study shows that the transition is by far the cheapest option. The risk is rather that these types of transitions will not be implemented quickly enough. They should inspire policymakers, according to the one of the authors, Marc Jacobson: “I hope people will take these plans to their policymakers in their country to help solve these problems.”

Emilia Samuelsson

Figure 1. Timeline for 143 countries, representing more than 99.7 percent of world fossil-fuel CO₂ emissions, to transition from conventional fuels (BAU) to 100 percent wind-water-solar (WWS) in all energy sectors. Also shown are the annually averaged end-use power demand reductions that occur along the way.

Air pollution from fossil fuels costs USD 8 billion a day

A new study by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air shows that air pollution emitted from burning fossil fuels, primarily coal, oil and gas, causes approximately 4.5 million premature deaths worldwide every year.

The study focusses on particulate matter (PM₂.₅), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) and ozone (O₃), as elevated levels of these pollutants increase the incidence of chronic and acute illnesses and contribute to millions of hospital visits and billions of work days lost due to illness each year, resulting in high costs to our economies, as well as to environmental damage.

Exposure to PM₂.₅and ozone from fossil fuel emissions is responsible for about 7.7 million asthma-related trips to the emergency room each year, while exposure to fine PM₂.₅ alone from burning fossil fuels is estimated to cause 1.8 billion days of sick leave annually.

It is pointed out that air pollution is a major health threat to children, particularly in low-income countries. Globally, air pollution from fossil fuel-related PM₂.₅ is attributed to the death of about 40,000 children before their fifth birthday and to approximately 2 million preterm births each year.

The analysis incorporates recent research that quantifies the contribution of fossil fuel-related emissions to global air pollution levels, and it uses global datasets on levels of PM₂.₅, NO₂, and O₃ to perform health impact assessments and subsequent cost calculations for the year 2018.

Exposure to PM₂.₅ from fossil fuels was found to be responsible for the premature deaths of around 3 million people due to cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and lung cancer. Moreover, approximately 1 million people die prematurely due to ozone pollution and 500,000 people due to NO₂.

The total economic costs of the health damage are estimated to amount to USD 2,900 billion in 2018, equivalent to USD 8 billion per day. The report has an appendix providing both cost and mortality data country-by-country. When looking at individual countries, China, the US and India bear the highest cost from fossil fuel pollution, at USD 900 bn, 600 bn and 150 bn respectively.

Across the EU, around 400,000 annual premature deaths are attributed to fossil-fuel-related air pollution. Of these, 295,000 are linked to PM₂.₅ exposure, 69,000 to NO₂ and 34,000 to ozone exposure. The overall economic costs for the EU are estimated at more than USD 500 billion. Country-by-country data for EU member states are shown in the table.

The authors of the study argue that the solution is to rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels, which would simultaneously tackle both the air pollution crisis and the climate emergency, and the report lists some good examples of action taken in the transport and energy sectors.

“This is a problem that we know how to solve,” said Minwoo Son, clean air campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. “By transitioning to renewable energy sources, phasing out diesel and petrol cars, and building public transport. We need to take into account the real cost of fossil fuels, not just for our rapidly heating planet, but also for our health.”

Christer Ågren

China’s premier unveils smog-busting plan to ‘make skies blue again’

Li Keqiang promises to intensify battle against air pollution as he unveils series of measures at annual people’s congress

The Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, has promised to step up his country’s battle against deadly smog, telling an annual political congress: “We will make our skies blue again.”

China’s cities have become synonymous with choking air pollution in recent years, which is blamed for up to 1 million premature deaths a year.

Speaking at the opening of the national people’s congress in Beijing on Sunday, Li admitted his country was facing a grave environmental crisis that had left Chinese citizens desperately hoping for relief.

Li unveiled a series of smog-busting measures including cutting coal use, upgrading coal-fired power plants, slashing vehicle emissions, encouraging the use of clean-energy cars and punishing government officials who ignore environmental crimes or air pollution. “Key sources” of industrial pollutants would be placed under 24-hour online monitoring in an effort to cut emissions.

The premier vowed that levels of PM2.5 would fall “markedly” over the coming year but did not cite a specific target.

“Tackling smog is down to every last one of us, and success depends on action and commitment. As long as the whole of our society keeps trying we will have more and more blue skies with each passing year,” he said.

PM2.5 is a tiny airborne particulate that has been linked to lung cancer, asthma and heart disease.

Despite his buoyant message, Li’s language was more cautious than three years ago when he used the same opening speech to “resolutely declare war on pollution” and warn that smog was “nature’s red light warning against inefficient and blind development”.

There has been public frustration – and protest – against Beijing’s failure to achieve results in its quest to clean up the environment. Tens of thousands of “smog refugees” reportedly fled China’s pollution-stricken north last December as a result of the country’s latest pollution “red alert”.

Wei Song, a Chinese opera singer who attended Li’s speech, said it was inhuman to “achieve development goals by sacrificing the environment” and called for tougher measures against polluters.

“The government should increase the penalties in order to bankrupt the people and the companies responsible. Otherwise, if the punishment is just a little scratch, they will carry on polluting,” said Wei, one of China’s “three tenors”.

Zhang Bawu, a senior Communist party official from Ningxia province, defended China’s “much improved” record on the environment.

He claimed the number of smoggy days in Beijing was now falling thanks to government efforts and he said his province, which is building what could become the biggest solar farm on Earth, was also doing its bit.

Ningxia’s frontline role in a Chinese wind and solar revolution meant 40% of its energy now came from renewable sources, Zhang said.

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen

Why Your Electric Vehicle Might Not Be as Green as You Think

Electric vehicles don’t reduce air pollution and improve health unless they’re combined with a move toward alternative ways to generate electricity, scientists confirm.

Will electric vehicles really lead to cleaner air and healthier people? Only if they are coupled with cleaner ways of generating electricity, scientists say in a new study today.

It’s a familiar back-and-forth: Advocates alternative energy vehicles point to their positive environmental qualities, such as reducing carbon emissions from the tailpipe. Their opponents point out the hidden costs, such as the fact that the energy for electric cars comes largely from burning coal. Scientists want to attach some hard numbers to this debate. And so a team led by Christopher Tessum, an environmental engineer at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, set out to study the effects on human health of various alternative ways to power a car. Their findings are presented today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers investigated ten alternatives to gasoline. They include diesel, compressed natural gas, ethanol derived from corn, and ethanol derived from cellulose, as well as electric vehicles powered in six different ways: by electricity from coal, natural gas, corn leaf and stalk combustion, wind, water, or solar energy. They then modeled the effects of replacing 10 percent of U.S. vehicles that currently run on gasoline by 2020.

Jason Hill, study co-author and environmental engineer at the University of Minnesota, says it’s important to note that this is a study about pollutants and how they affect human health—not about climate change. “We looked all the way from all the stages of production and use of a fuel, such as extracting, refining and transporting it, to the way it changes ozone levels and atmospheric pollutant concentrations,” he says. “We also looked at where people live in the United States and used meteorology and chemical transport models to see how often and how much people would be exposed to pollutants, calculated damage to health, and the economic costs associated with this damage.”

The findings showed a dramatic swing the positive and negative effects on health based on the type of energy used. Internal combustion vehicles running on corn ethanol and electric vehicles powered by electricity from coal were the real sinners; according the study, their health effects were 80 percent worse compared to gasoline vehicles. However, electric vehicles powered by electricity from natural gas, wind, water, or solar energy might reduce health impacts by at least 50 percent compared to gasoline vehicles.

“We were surprised that many alternative vehicle fuels and technologies that are put forward as better for the environment than conventional gasoline vehicles did not end up causing large decreases in air quality-related health impacts,” Tessum says. “The most important implication is that electric vehicles can cause large public health improvements, but only when paired with clean electricity. Adapting electric vehicles without taking steps to clean up electric generation would be worse for public health than continuing to use conventional gasoline vehicles.”

EV batteries are a problem, too, but a changing one. According to Tessum, previous studies have suggested that emissions from electric car battery production make such vehicles worse for public health than gasoline vehicles, even when the electricity to power them comes from non-polluting sources. “However, battery technology is evolving quickly,” he explains.” Using updated estimates of emissions from battery production, and accounting for the fact that much of the pollutant emissions from the battery production supply chain occurs in remote areas far from people, we found that the health impacts of electric vehicle battery production are much lower than previously estimated.”

In the future, Tessum says, the team wants to explore the potential impacts of alternative fuel use outside the United States. “We can also investigate if some areas might benefit more from electric vehicles than others, to know if there are ways to deploy electric vehicle fleets for optimal impact,” Hill says. “Perhaps subsidies or tax breaks could help those areas benefit most.”