Global Energy: 50% Must Be Clean by 2050

It’s easy to get distracted by the micro moves of companies across the different cleantech sectors, from biofuels to solar to water, so it can be refreshing to step back and remember the planetary picture. Solar expert Yogi Goswami, director of the Solar Energy & Conversion Lab at the University of South Florida, described the world energy endgame in a speech this morning at the ThinkGreen cleantech conference in San Francisco:

“By 2050, 50 percent of global energy will have to come from renewable sources. To get there, R&D will have to be accelerated and policy will have to be changed all over the world.”

It’s a simple statement, but one that succinctly reflects the engine driving this emerging cleantech industry (oh yeah, other than money). Startups, investors, researchers in university labs and policy makers are all focused on technologies that can both meet the world’s rising energy demands (hello China and India), as well as reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and combat global warming. No sweat, right folks?

Goswami laid out the energy breakdown: 80 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels, ie. coal, oil, and natural gas; 6 percent from nuclear and 13 percent from combined renewables, though the vast majority is conventional biomass used for cooking in developing countries, which is very inefficient. When it comes to electricity generation, 40 percent of electricity comes from coal, 7 percent from oil, 16 percent from nuclear, and 17 percent from renewables (15.9 percent of which is derived from hydro power).

Beyond the implications of global warming and climate change, it will be difficult to meet the growing need for energy with the earth’s fossil fuel resources. According to Goswami’s data at the current usage rate, oil reserves will last for another 41 years (that’s assuming production doesn’t slow down, which it will). The proven world reserves of natural gas will last another last 67 years. And though we still have 164 years of proven coal reserves left (not counting increased efficiency, which will happen), our coal habit will of course have a carbon consequence.

Unsurprisingly, given his background, Goswami was the most bullish on solar, calling it “the biggest resource we have.” He predicts that in the next decade or so the price of solar will go down to 30 cents per watt. In a gloomy talk, there’s a bright spot in the future.


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