'S curve' deployment suggest goals of Paris Agreement can be achieved, but only if policy framework 'encourages, sustains, and extends' the deployment of clean technologies, according to researchers from UCL's Institute for Sustainable Resources
Current renewable energy deployment trends suggest the power sector remains off track to deliver the emissions reductions required to meet global climate goals, but a new report from UCL's Institute for Sustainable Resources has argued there are considerable grounds for optimism that net zero emission power networks can be engineered in the coming decades.
The report, which was released late last week, acknowledges that while a linear extrapolation of renewables deployment trends suggests the sector is off track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, clean power electricity generation is in fact set to meet Paris-consistent benchmarks if growth is extended against an 'S-curve' dynamic that has been observed in technological transfomations of the past.
Citing examples such as the transition from landlines to mobile phones, the researchers argue that an 'S curve' deployment trend could apply to the fast-expanding global renewables sector. But they also warn this outcome would require government and businesses to work together to harness the "exponential growth" of the clean power sector.
The report, dubbed Shape and Pace of Change in the Electricity Transition: Sectoral dynamics and indicators of progress, argues the adoption of renewable power to date fits along an ‘S-curve' pattern for new technology adoption where an 'emergent' growth phase gathers magnitude as the new technology is established before entering a 'diffusion' phase of exponential growth.
Once extended against this 'S-curve' growth dynamic, rates of electricity generation from wind and solar are revealed to be in line with Paris Agreement-consistent 2050 benchmarks, according to the researchers.
Michael Grubb, professor of energy and climate change at University College London, said the world was now witnessing an "unstoppable momentum" in the solar, wind and battery storage markets.
"People still overlook the implications of exponential growth: the pace of growth in solar especially has outstripped all expectations, and the combined wind and solar growth rate is on track for the kind of transition needed to deliver the Paris emission goals in the power sector," he said.
However, obstacles remain that could slow the pace of transition and prevent the full potential of renewables being realised, Grubb warned. "High ambition still requires strong and broad-based policy action," he said.
Indeed, the report notes that growth in renewable electricity continues to be "substantially outstripped" by rising electricity demand, allowing for continued growth in fossil fuel generation.
In order to displace fossil fuels and to mitigate the risk of stranded assets, policymakers should introduce strong and supportive policy frameworks that encourage the electrification of new sectors, alongside measures that can drive a "step change" in energy efficiency that could further facilitate a global transition to electric power, the report stresses.
"The burning issue is whether the near-exponential growth of renewables can be sustained for long enough, and efficiency in the use of electricity accelerated, so as to begin to rapidly displace fossil fuels," the report notes.
Energy efficiency policy across a range of end-use sectors is required, it argues. "Ensuring that such policy encourages, sustains, and extends the technological transitions in these sectors - in demand, as well as in generation - remains an urgent task if national and global decarbonisation aims are to be achieved," the report states.
Maria Mendiluce, chief executive of the We Mean Business coalition, which commissioned the report, stressed that business leaders and policymakers had a huge opportunity to create jobs and economic growth by investing in zero carbon technologies.
"Harnessing exponential growth in zero-carbon technologies such as renewables is like supercharging our collective efforts to tackle the climate crisis," she said. "Whereas failure to support in the early stages is not only a wasted opportunity for creating the jobs and growth of the future, but it also increases the risk of stranded assets and being left behind in the race to a zero-carbon future."
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