Renewables have increased in popularity in recent years amid the energy transition – but could clean energy technologies displace fossil fuels entirely by 2050?

A number of the world’s major economies are attempting to reduce their reliance on high-polluting fuels such as coal in a bid to drive down emissions and limit the potential impacts of climate change.

But, two of the highest emitters, China and India, are continuing to invest heavily in fossil fuels as the two nations aim to combat their rapidly growing energy demand, with the Asia Pacific region’s demand expected to almost double by 2030.

A report by think tank Carbon Tracker has revealed that huge falls in the cost of solar and wind power in the past few years has unlocked an energy reserve that can meet world demand 100 times over.

It highlights that the two renewable energy sources are inexhaustible sources of energy, unlike coal, oil and gas, and at current growth rates they will push fossil fuels out of the electricity sector by the mid-2030s.

The analysis claims they could power the world by 2050, displacing fossil fuels entirely and producing cheap, clean energy to support new technologies such as electric vehicles and green hydrogen.

“We are entering a new epoch, comparable to the industrial revolution,” said Kingsmill Bond, Carbon Tracker’s energy strategist and report lead author. “Energy will tumble in price and become available to millions more, particularly in low-income countries.

“Geopolitics will be transformed as nations are freed from expensive imports of coal, oil and gas. Clean renewables will fight catastrophic climate change and free the planet from deadly pollution.”


World only needs to exploit 1% of renewable energy resources to replace fossil fuels

Global energy consumption in 2019 was 65 Petawatt hours (PWh). Carbon Tracker’s report highlights that with current technology, the world has the potential to capture more than 5,800 PWh annually from solar PV alone – as much power in a single year as could be generated by burning all known fossil fuel reserves. In addition, onshore and offshore wind could capture nearly 900 PWh a year.

The analysis found that about 60% of the world’s solar resource and 15% of its wind resource is already economic compared with local fossil fuel generation. By 2030, it claims all solar and more than half of the wind is “likely to be economic”.

“The world does not need to exploit its entire renewable resource – just 1% is enough to replace all fossil fuel usage,” said Harry Benham, report co-author and chairman of think tank Ember-Climate.

“Each year we are fuelling the climate crisis by burning three million years of fossilised sunshine in coal, oil and gas while we use just 0.01% of daily sunshine.”

UAE solar aluminium
The economic potential of solar power is starting to be realised as costs, which are down by an average of 18% every year since 2010, continue to tumble (Credit: Shutterstock/Diyana Dimitrova)

Building enough solar panels to meet global energy demand would take up just 0.3% of land, less than the area occupied by fossil fuels.

The world’s largest oilfield, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, which occupies 8,400 square kilometres, produces the equivalent of 0.9 PWh each year. According to the report, building solar panels over the same area would generate 1.2 PWh a year on average globally and 1.6 PWh in Saudi Arabia, which is sunnier than average.

The analysis highlights that the opportunity is greatest in emerging markets that have the highest solar and wind potential relative to their domestic demand.

Many countries are still building out their energy systems, and Carbon Tracker claims cheap renewables offer a route to bring power to more people, create new industries, jobs and wealth. It notes that Africa has a massive 39% of global potential and could become a “renewables superpower”.

It added that the economic potential of solar power is starting to be realised as costs, which are down by an average of 18% every year since 2010, continue to tumble.

Solar is also growing faster than any previous energy technology at this size, with an average annual increase of 39% in the past decade – nearly doubling capacity every two years.

Wind is on a similar trajectory. Over the past decade, prices have fallen by an average of 9% a year while capacity has grown by 17% a year. This is driving efficiencies and advances such as better panels and higher turbines that reduce costs further, according to Carbon Tracker.

It highlights that financial markets are “waking up to the opportunity”. In 2020, for the first time, clean energy companies raised more money than fossil fuel companies through public offerings.


Technological advances and falling costs of renewables could see them replace fossil fuels by 2050

The report recognises that the key barrier to change is now political, but it said growth is likely to continue as more countries recognise the potential of renewables.

Carbon Tracker believes the scale and falling costs of the energy resource is likely to drive continued exponential growth in the deployment of solar and wind generation.

It projects that a growth rate of 15% would see solar and wind generate all global electricity by the mid-2030s and provide all energy by 2050 as falling costs and technological advances “overcome the challenges of powering sectors like steel and cement production”.

Germany is one country that has pioneered solar and wind, but the report notes that its scale up on the technologies has raised concerns around the cost of the energy transition and land usage.

It refers to the nation as a “special case”, given that it is the third most “stretched” country in the world, with low potential for renewables to demand, and the fact it subsidised the technologies at a time when they were far more expensive.

“The troubles faced by Germany are therefore highly unusual, and if they can solve them then so can everyone else,” said the report.

It claims countries like the UK and South Korea, which have significant constraints on land availability, are likely to continue making greater use of their offshore wind resources instead of pursuing solar.