The Path To 100% Renewable Energy Future

If the world keeps using energy as wastefully as we do today, our planet simply won’t be able meet the needs of its inhabitants .

Fortunately, solutions already exist in every sector that will help every one of us make the massive energy savings we need. Now, we all must start using these options more widely, and governments must bring in legislation to make them compulsory.

  • Scientists and designers need to continue to innovate, designing more and more efficient products, buildings and transport.
  • Global leaders have a responsibility to make sure everyone is aware of the energy they use and how it affects our planet.
  • People all over the world are already making changes.
Here are some of the innovations leading towards an energy-efficient future...
text / ©: EcoFys
'By 2050, we save nearly €4 trillion per year through energy efficiency and reduced fuel costs'
© EcoFys

More efficient products lead to massive energy savings

If just 10% more of the products we buy were the most energy efficient currently available on the market, we could reduce greenhouses gas emissions by 100 million tons a year.
There are some exciting ideas out there and many innovative products on the market already, but there’s still huge potential to create much more efficient appliances.

For example, we can soon look forward to “waterless” washing machines. They use 90% less water, less electricity and less detergent than a standard machine, using tiny plastic beads to suck up stains instead.

Producing cars with lighter (though equally strong) frames would help save energy in various ways. It takes a lot of energy to produce steel, so using less in cars would mean big savings. And the lighter a car is, the less fuel it uses.

Another way in which design can reduce energy use is by following the “cradle to cradle” philosophy. That means using only materials that can be reused or recycled – or can decompose safely and naturally.

One such material under development is a new type of plastic which is made from renewable resources instead of oil. It takes less energy to produce, and it’s biodegradable.
 / ©: Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon
The global cost of lighting is $230 billion per year. Modernizing wasteful technology could save 60%” - Mills, E. 2002, "The $230-billion Global Lighting Energy Bill.", International Association for Energy-Efficient Lighting, Stockholm
© Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon
New energy-efficient materials will help speed up move to renewable energy future
Finding alternatives to materials like cement, steel and plastic, all of which take huge amounts of energy to produce, is an essential part of our move to a renewable energy future.

We rely on these materials in much of our building and manufacturing, but we need to start using less of them, or producing them in a different way.

Developing these should be an immediate priority for research and development.

We’ll need to increase the amount of recycled materials we use too, as we become more energy- efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels.

It takes 2/3 less energy to make products from recycled aluminium than it does to make them from new.


Stocks of used materials have increased substantially over the past few decades, which means recycling is becoming increasingly economic and practical.
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Safer stoves lower energy use in developing countries

Around 160 million households in the developing world are now using new and improved biomass cooking stoves, which are preventing health problems – and helping combat climate change.
Most are made with a ceramic lining, so these new stoves don’t produce these dangerous emissions. They also use less fuel, which in turn reduces deforestation as there’s less need for charcoal.

Even more efficient are solar cookers. The only “fuel” they need is sunshine – they simply concentrate the heat from the sun to cook food.

Better stoves are just one of the ways the developing world is becoming more energy efficient.

Over 30 million homes now produce their own energy for lighting and cooking in small-scale household biogas plants, using nothing more than waste products.

Distributed widely enough, these small-scale solutions add up to a significant reduction in energy demand – and carbon emissions. Industrialized countries should provide financial help so old stoves can be phased-out and replaced with new models, and developing countries can implement more of these energy-saving measures.

Indoor smoke fumes from old-fashioned traditional stoves are responsible for around 2.5 million deaths in developing countries every year.

An electric jolt to the transport system

The transport sector consumes about 2/3 of the oil used worldwide, so transforming the way people travel is one of the keys to unlocking a renewable energy future.

Instead of running on fossil fuels, belching out carbon dioxide and other toxic fumes, the next generation of cars and vans will be charged, and recharged over and over again, using mains electricity. This will increasingly be generated from renewable sources.

Electrifying transport as much as possible is vital.

We can’t keep using petrol and diesel, and there simply isn’t enough land to sustainably grow biofuels to power cars and trains as well as planes and boats.

No part of our future transport can be viewed in isolation.

Better planning is one way we can use today’s transport more efficiently. Driving more slowly and smoothly saves fuel, as does planning the route before travelling. And this applies to all modes of transport.

  • Improving the way air traffic is managed could reduce congestion in our skies and allow planes to follow more efficient routes, which will save fuel. 
  • Better port and route planning – for example, taking prevailing weather conditions even more into account – and reduced speeds can significantly reduce fuel use in cargo ships.

Where possible, people should walk, cycle or take buses, trams and trains for journeys for which they’d usually jump in the car. That will require, and catalyze, big improvements in public transport – to make it an attractive alternative, particularly in developing countries which haven’t yet become dependent on private cars.

We also need to use the most energy-efficient modes of transport, sending more freight by rail and sea, and using high-speed trains for short-haul journeys previously made by air.

Such big changes will require substantial investment. But with reduced congestion, traffic fumes and noise, and carbon dioxide emissions, it’s unquestionably a price worth paying.
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© WWF

Better buildings = cheaper bills

Imagine never having an energy bill for your home again. And imagine it not being a dream, but a perfectly achievable reality.
It’s achievable because the world already has the architectural and construction expertise to create buildings that require almost no conventional energy for heating or cooling. In fact, thousands of them already exist, in places like Germany and Scandinavia.

Improving older buildings will also help to save energy. We could reduce the need for heating by 60% by properly insulating walls, roofs and ground floors; replacing old windows; and installing ventilation systems that recover heat.

We need governments to offer incentives for people to make their homes more energy efficient and to pass laws which require all new buildings to meet zero-energy standards.

But there are things that each of us can do to save energy in our own buildings before any of this happens.

Turning down the air conditioning or heating will save energy, as will switching off electrical appliances that aren’t being used.

Everyone can do simple things like this right now to make buildings much more energy efficient.
 / ©: National Geographic Stock/Tyrone Turner / WWF
Thermographic image of a residence house in New Haven, CT, USA.
© National Geographic Stock/Tyrone Turner / WWF

Possibilities and pitfalls in exploiting renewable energy

Switching to renewable energy will be good for people and nature – but we need to tread carefully to avoid possible negative impacts
  • Every year, more oil leaks into the Niger delta than was spilt in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • In Canada, huge areas of forest are being cleared to make way for oil sands developments, and millions of litres of toxic water have seeped into the environment.
  • In the Appalachians, mountaintops are blasted away to extract coal.
  • Tropical forests are felled to provide wood fuels – which in turn cause fatal levels of pollution.
  • The threat of radioactive fallout looms over every nuclear facility.

Even without climate change, there are many compelling environmental and social reasons to embrace clean renewable energy.

But moving to a renewable future presents its own challenges.

We need to develop extensive renewable energy infrastructure over the coming decades – including a massive increase in capacity for generating wind, solar and geothermal power, plus all the new power lines and cables to transmit electricity over long distances.

It’s essential we put the right technologies in the right places to minimize any negative impacts.
 / ©: National Geographic Stock/ Jason Edwards / WWF
ALL LARGE-SCALE ENERGY INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENTS MUST SATISFY INDEPENDENT, IN-DEPTH, SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENTS
© National Geographic Stock/ Jason Edwards / WWF

Renewable power

It’s been estimated that to meet a quarter of the world’s electricity needs by 2050, we’d need another million wind turbines on land, and another 100,000 larger turbines at sea.
With sensitive planning, the environmental impact of wind farms is minimal.

Though wind farms can be controversial. They can impact on landscape aesthetics, and they can pose a  danger to bats and migratory birds in some locations.

But when turbines are sited on farmland, almost all of the land can still be used for grazing or crops, and they don’t need any water for cooling, unlike fossil fuel and nuclear power plants.

Offshore wind, wave and tidal power installations also have their impact on our planet.

They potentially affect local marine environments, industries such as shipping and fishing, and coastal communities.

More research into the impact of these developments, and selection of  the most appropriate sites is needed. We must also research technologies that can reduce these impacts – such as floating wind turbines, which have much less impact on the seabed, and can also be sited in deeper water.

Geothermal resources are often found in remote, unspoilt areas, and exploiting them will undoubtedly affect the land and people in the surrounding area. The steam or hot water used to generate electricity contains toxic compounds, but it is possible to “capture” these and stop them escaping into the environment.

Well-managed plants can actually have a beneficial effect on the surrounding area. Not only do they provide a lot of jobs but, because geothermal plants need healthy water catchment areas, they can actually help to conserve surrounding habitats.

The most developed renewable technology – hydropower – provides a cautionary tale.

Up to 80 million people have been displaced to make way for hydroelectric reservoirs. By upsetting water flows, dams threaten freshwater habitats and the livelihoods of people living downstream.

Energy Report quote / ©: EcoFys
An additional 1,000,000 onshore and 100,000 offshore wind turbines would meet a quarter of the world’s electricity needs by 2050 - The Ecofys Energy Scenario, December 2010
© EcoFys
 / ©: Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon
People bathing in thermal baths, Domogled National Park, Romania.
© Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon

Biofuels

More controversial still is the role of bioenergy. Currently, it’s the only viable replacement for fossil fuels in a number of applications.
We can’t yet electrify aeroplanes, ships or heavy goods vehicles which need high-energy liquid fuels, while some industrial processes, such as steel manufacturing, require higher temperatures than electricity or solar heat can supply.

Biofuel crops and wood from forests provide renewable alternatives – but at what price?

We must avoid a situation where developing countries grow biofuel crops to support the lifestyles of the rich while their own people don’t have enough food to eat.

Taking more wood from forests is also challenging. Many forests are already pushed to the limit. So must be sure that any increase in forestry doesn’t have a negative impact on biodiversity, local communities and carbon levels.

Yet it could still be possible to meet future bioenergy needs sustainably.

Nearly a 1/3 of global land area excluding Antarctica is used for feeding livestock, either through grazing or growing animal fodder. 

If people in the developed world ate half as much meat as they do today, it would free up enough land for biofuel crops without threatening food security, clearing forests, increasing irrigation or losing biodiversity. Biofuels could provide a valuable income for farmers too.

But we must proceed with caution.

In the meantime, we should take urgent action to reduce demand for liquid fuels – for example by flying less, limiting long-haul freight transport by producing more sustainably and locally – free up more land by eating much less meat, at least in developed countries.

We also need research into alternative technologies – such as hydrogen, battery storage and bioenergy from algae – that could reduce the amount of land needed for biofuels.

Our insatiable thirst for energy in the fossil fuel era has had disastrous consequences. As we move towards a renewable energy future, we need to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes.

We need to carefully analyze what land and water is available for bioenergy, taking social, environmental and economic issues into account – everything from the rights of indigenous people and the movements of migratory species to the type of infrastructure in place.

The earth and our society are challenging us to come up with clean and smart solutions for the availability of energy for the next generations.

For this reason Eneco is committed to the ambition: sustainable energy for everyone.

The WWF Energy Report shows that realizing this ambition is within reach: now is the time to act.

Jeroen de Haas

Jeroen de Haas is chairman of the Board of Management at Eneco. He has been a member of the Board of Management since 2000 and held the position of vice-chairman since 2006.

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