Could renewable energy completely replace fossil fuels?
The Paris Agreement has sent a signal, but could society do enough to achieve the goals of this landmark climate agreement?
To explore the answer to this question we need to go back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. We would see that it was built on the back of fossil fuels; first coal and then oil and then natural gas. These provided energy for industrial furnaces, trains, ships and much more. Coal was initially the starting point of town gas for cities, but this was later replaced by piping in natural gas.
Today, nearly every service people use and every product consumers buy has a fossil fuel somewhere in how it is made or delivered.
Indeed, a stark reality of the early 21st century is the lack of a clear development pathway for an emerging economy that doesn’t include coal. Coal requires little technology and offers a great deal of energy. As such, it is a stubborn and persistent part of the high-CO2 energy system. Dealing with it will take determined action by governments to provide competitive alternatives.
In recent years, electricity has come to be generated efficiently and cost effectively from wind and solar power, as has been the case with hydro-electricity for many decades. Rapid progress with renewable electricity technologies has led some commentators to think about the complete replacement of fossil fuels within the broader energy system.
But despite more than a century of progress, electricity makes up only 20% of the final energy that society uses today and the rate of increase has been the same since the earliest days, about two percentage points of final energy share per decade. To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement that pace of growth would need to rapidly increase.
Shell’s latest energy scenario, Sky, requires a complete re-wiring of the global economy in just 50 years. However, even in 2070, when Sky achieves the societal goal of net-zero emissions, oil, coal and gas are still in use.
The Sky scenario pathway illustrates a technically possible, but challenging pathway to achieve the Paris Agreement. In it renewable energy surpasses fossil fuels for electricity generation shortly after 2030. Renewable energy then dominates electricity generation by the 2050s, but even with an outlook that stretches to the end of the century, electricity doesn’t pass 60% of “final energy”1 use. The remaining 40% comes in the form of hydrogen and hydrocarbon fuels, such as petrol. And hydrocarbon – oil or gas based – feedstocks are also required to supply a growing chemicals industry.
Demand for fossil fuels declines in Sky, but still in 2100, industry will use some fossil fuels for processes requiring intense heat and the transport sector will still seek the high energy density of hydrocarbon fuels to power some ships and planes. Although, a portion of these fuels are synthesized – or manufactured – from sustainably grown biomass.
1 “Final energy” is the name given to the energy society uses to deliver a service. Examples include gasoline in the car delivering mobility or electricity delivering light in the home.
But what if we look even further into the future? In theory and perhaps in practice sometime in the 22nd century, all energy sources and hydrocarbon products could start their life on a solar panel.
Electricity could, in theory, be used to make hydrogen via electrolysis of water and carbon could be extracted from the oceans or atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Combining these could make any hydrocarbon material, from fuels for planes to plastics for consumer goods. In Sky, some of these synthetic routes begin to emerge in the second half of the century, but it will take time for these new industries to grow and compete. They don’t exist today, although the chemistry on which they would be built is well understood and used in other ways.
A century is a long time, but perhaps the minimum period required to see a complete evolution of the energy system. Society may eventually achieve a world where everything is renewable, but it is an unlikely outcome for the 21st century alone.
Read the Sky publication to see how the goals of the Paris Agreement could be met through a combination of technology, government policy and societal actions.
Could society achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement? What do you think? Share your thoughts on social media using #Shellscenarios
The Sky scenario illustrates a technically possible, but challenging pathway for society to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Discover the Sky scenario through our latest content series, twelve questions addressing key topics found within Sky.
For over two decades Shell scenario thinking has incorporated the issue of climate change. The Sky scenario joins two previous Shell scenarios, Mountains and Oceans that saw rapid decarbonization but fell short of the goals of the Paris Agreement. To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, the Sky scenario relies on a complex combination of mutually reinforcing actions by society, markets and governments. It adopts an approach grounded in current economic and policy development mechanisms, but then progressively becomes ‘goal-driven’ to achieve society’s ambition for net-zero emissions by 2070. At Shell, we hope it’s a helpful contribution to one of the world’s toughest challenges. You can explore all three scenarios at www.shell.com/Scenarios