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September 22, 2022

100% renewable energy by 2050? Probably not

Energy based entirely on renewables by 2050 has become a mainstream—but perhaps overly aggressive—goal.

In the news

Some believe 100% renewable energy is not only achievable but will also be here very soon. That’s the thrust of this Helsinki Times story, which says, “Hundreds of scientific studies have proven that 100% renewable energy systems can be achieved on global, regional and national levels by or before 2050.”

Pointing to research from Finland’s LUT University and others (including this IEEE report), the story says solar and wind energy, advanced storage, sector coupling and more would serve as pillars of such a goal.

The Cognizant take

With 2050 less than three decades away, not everybody views this as a realistic goal, particularly (and ironically, given the source of the story) in Europe and the UK. Somjyoti Mukherjee, a Director in Cognizant's Energy & Utilities practice, notes that progress on renewables varies greatly with geography.

Leading the pack is Asia/Pacific. At the country level, renewable energy accounted for 32.5% of Australia’s total electricity generation in 2021. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the massive investor-owned utilities, which handle everything from power generation to retail distribution, “are seeing profitability driven by sustainability,” Mukherjee says.

The US federal government is funneling billions of dollars into the sector to incentivize progress on renewables. In other words, in the US, going green gets you greenbacks—a motivator no executive will ignore.

Europe presents a different picture. Many major electric utilities there are strictly power generation companies. That power has to come from somewhere, which has led to the continent’s massive reliance on natural gas. Fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has partially closed that spigot, “so now coal demand is going up,” Mukherjee notes. “The power companies have no choice. They have to generate.”

Does this sound like a continent that will get 100% of its energy from renewable sources 28 years from now?

The other issue Mukherjee points to is energy storage, which is especially crucial in parts of Europe and the British Isles not known for predictable sunshine. While batteries are getting smaller and more efficient, he says, they are not getting cheaper.

“Demand cannot be managed, and you cannot turn solar on or off, the way you would a plant. You have to keep building storage, and what I ask is who’s paying for it?”

Who indeed?

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