A 100% Renewable World Is Possible? A Poll Among Experts
By Ugo Bardi
20 May, 2016
I am reporting here the results of a small survey that I carried out last week among the members of a discussion forum; mainly experts in renewable energy (*). It was a very informal poll; not meant to have statistical value. But some 70 people responded out of a total of 167 members; so I think these results have a certain value in telling us how the experts feel in this field. And I was surprised by the remarkable optimism that resulted from the poll.
This is what I asked the members of the list
The question is about the possibility of a society not too different from ours (**) but 100% based on renewable energy sources, and on the possibility of obtaining it before it is too late to avoid the climate disaster. This said, what statement best describes your position?
1. It is impossible for technical reasons. (Renewables have too low EROEIs, need too large amounts of natural resources, we'll run out of fossil fuels first, climate change will destroy us first, etc.)
2. It is technically possible but so expensive to be unthinkable.
3. It is technically possible and not so expensive to be beyond our means. However, it is still expensive enough that most likely people will not want to pay the costs of the transition before it will be too late to achieve it, unless we move to a global emergency status.
4. It is technically possible and inexpensive enough that it can be done smoothly, by means of targeted government intervention, such as a carbon tax.
5. It is technically possible and technological progress will soon make it so inexpensive that normal market mechanisms will bring us there nearly effortlessly.
As I said, it was a very informal poll and these questions could have been phrased differently, and probably in a better way. And, indeed, many people thought that their position was best described by something intermediate, some saying, for instance, "I am between 4 and 5". Because of this, it was rather difficult to make a precise counting of the results. But the trend was clear anyway.
Out of some 70 answers, the overwhelming majority was for option 4, that is, the transition is not only technologically possible, but within reach at a reasonable cost and fast enough to avoid major damage from climate change. The second best choice was option 3 (the transition is possible but very expensive). Only a few respondents say that the transition is technologically impossible without truly radical changes of society. Some opted for option 5, even suggesting an "option 6", something like "it will be faster than anyone expects".
I must confess that I was a little surprised by this diffuse optimism, being myself set on option 3. In part, it is because I tend to frequent "doomer" groups, but also on the basis of the quantitative calculations that I performed with some colleagues. But I think that these results are indicative of a trend that's developing among energy experts. It is an attitude that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but the experts are clearly perceiving the rapid strides forward of renewable technologies and reacting accordingly. They feel that there is a concrete chance to be able to create a cleaner world fast enough to avoid the worst.
I understand that this is the opinion of just a tiny group of experts, I understand that experts may well be wrong, I understand that there exist such things as the "bandwagon effect" and the "confirmation bias." I know all this. Yet, I believe that, in the difficult situation in which we find ourselves, we can't go anywhere if we keep telling people that we are doomed, no matter what we do. What we need in order to keep going and fight the climate crisis is a healthy dose of hope and of optimism. And these results show that there is hope, that there is reason for optimism. Whether the transition will turn out to be very difficult, or not so difficult, it seems to be within reach if we really want it.
(*) Note: the forum mentioned in this post is a private discussion group meant to be a tool for professionals in renewable energy. It is not a place to discuss whether renewable energy is a good thing or not, nor to discuss such thing as the incoming near term extinction of humankind and the like. Rather, the idea of the forum is to discuss how to make the renewable energy transition happen as fast as possible; hopefully fast enough to avoid a climate disaster. If you are interested in joining this forum, please write me privately at ugo.bardi(zingything)unifi.it telling me in a few lines who you are and why you would like to join. It is not necessary that you are a researcher or a professional. People of good will who think they have something to contribute to the discussion are welcome.
(**) The concept of a society "not too different from ours" is left purposefully vague, because it is, obviously subjected to many different interpretations.Personally, I would tend to define it in terms of what such a society would NOT be. A non-exhaustive list could be, in no particular order,
•Not a Mayan style theocracy, complete with human sacrifices
•Not a military dictatorship, Roman style, complete with a semi-divine imperial ruler
•Not a proletarian paradise, complete with a secret police sending dissenters to very cold places
•Not a hunting and gathering society, complete with hunting rituals and initiation rites
•Not a society where you are hanged upside down if you tell a joke about the dear leader
•Not a society where, if you can't afford health care, you are left to die in the street
•Not a society where you are worried every day about whether you and your children will have something to eat
•Not a society where slavery is legal and the obvious way things ought to be
•Not a society where women are supposed to be the property of men
•Not a society where most people spend most of their life tilling the fields
•Not a society where you are burned at the stake if you belong to a different sect than the dominant one
Many other things are, I think, negotiable, such as having vacations in Hawai'i, owning an SUV, watering the lawn in summer, and more.
Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy.