Renewable Energy Goals Are Unattainable by 2050
New study by Baylor researchers finds infrastructure, leadership and understanding in the way of fully sustainable energy sources
WACO, Texas (Feb. 12, 2024) – More than 250 U.S. cities have made pledges to transition to 100% renewable energy sources by the year 2050. However, in a new study published in the journal Environmental Research: Infrastructure and Sustainability, Baylor University researchers Kayla P. Garrett, Ph.D., and Ryan A. McManamay, Ph.D., found that, despite efforts, the target date to move to fully sustainable energy sources is unrealistic because of economic barriers, leadership and government breakdowns and a misunderstanding of energy limitations.
“The United Nations Panel on Climate Change emphasizes the need for sustainable energy sources and states that these changes have to happen in the next 20 to 30 years to meet these really critical timelines that we're looking at for irreconcilable climate change,” said, Garrett, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in environmental science at Baylor. “But when we look at like what is being done and how we're trying to get it done in those timelines, there's a misalignment.”
The researchers used an “energyshed framework” to analyze energy consumption on a city level, investigating a subset of 31 out of the 250 cities (including Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles) to evaluate their existing electricity production and estimate how much further they have to go to meet their goals.
“It is likely most cities will meet 10% of their energy demand with renewable energy, with best case scenarios reaching between 35% and 65% renewable penetration, within the next 20 to 30 years,” the researchers wrote. “This highlights the need for infrastructural development in the energy sector, as well as intentional planning efforts in order to make these energy goals a reality.”
An energyshed is similar in concept to a watershed — an area where energy is produced and can be collected and stored until needed. By looking at the energy needs through the context of an energyshed, researchers were able to determine if moving to fully sustainable energy is possible within the time goals.
“The term energyshed is still relatively new but has gained national attention for the benefit it offers in understanding the urban energy transitions that are already well underway,” Garrett said. “This method shows that while the need for this transition is clear, the best pathways to achieve it are greatly debated.”
Barriers to renewable energy
The researchers identified three main barriers standing in the way of attaining sustainable energy solutions: economics, energy leadership and energy literacy or understanding.
As fossil fuels and natural gas remain easily accessible and affordable, renewable energy sources tend to be more expensive and out of reach for most, the researchers said.
“We need to lower the cost of renewable technologies for widespread adoption by society,” said McManamay, associate professor of environmental science at Baylor. “As costs of equipment go down and federal incentives have increased, installation costs unfortunately seem to rise. Understandably, this leads to low adoption of renewables by the public.”
Government officials and managers typically lead conversations about achieving 100% renewable energy, which can call into question who the stakeholders are in developing these plans, the researchers said.
“It is commendable that community leaders are taking up matters and demonstrating motivation towards energy transitions,” Garrett said. “However, it is still perceived that very often there is gridlock, mismanaged goal setting and sociopolitical roadblocks at various scales of government that continue to hinder actionable progress.”
The energy transition also is affected by the lack of energy literacy, or understanding, among the general population.
“Our world is highly ‘energy unconscious’ despite how intimately energy and energy use are intertwined with our daily lives and work,” Garrett said. “Most of the general population would not know where the nearest powerplant to them is—or how power is delivered to their home.”
An energy storage solution
The reliance on readily accessible energy shows no sign of decreasing and with the effects of climate change, solutions are needed, the researchers said, especially for grid-scale energy storage.
“We have far more appliances, gadgets, refrigeration and air conditioning, and as the population grows, we simply need more energy, so unless we as a society dramatically reduce our electricity consumption, we’re going to be on this path for some time,” McManamay said. “Our society is dependent upon the immediacy of electricity, and grid-scale energy storage is desperately needed to make a transition happen.”
It is not just the energy requirements that are affected but also the reliance on having energy at the flip of a switch – literally.
“Our systems and our grid are built around the idea of turning on the switch and the energy is there,” Garrett said. “And our grids aren't really structured to work with renewables that are variable, such as wind and solar. For example, if the sun's not shining, we're not using solar — if it's not windy, we're not using wind. It becomes one of those questions of if we want to be moving away from fossil fuels, we have to find some kind of energy storage solution.”
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that renewable energy generation will need to triple to meet even a 45% share of energy production, indicating that in many instances renewable energy would be used as an additional source to meet growing energy needs, instead of a transitional tool away from fossil fuels.
“True sustainability is the overlap of maintaining environmental integrity, meeting economic development and sustaining social needs—and if those three things aren't happening, it's not considered truly sustainable,” Garrett said. “I think the same thing applies to any of these energy plans or these efforts of an energy transition, it has to be equitable, bearable and viable in all of those systems for it to work.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Kayla Garrett, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral teaching fellow in environmental science and a graduate of the McManamay Lab at Baylor. Her research focuses on renewable energy transitions and the assessment of social, economic and environmental issues that affect those transitions. She helped found the Justice and Mercy Energy Services nonprofit with a mission to alleviate energy poverty and promote job creation in regions of northern Haiti.
Ryan McManamay, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental science at Baylor, is a spatial ecologist who studies human-environmental systems to balance ecosystem and societal needs. Through the McManamay Lab, his research examines tradeoffs between current and future urban and energy infrastructure development and ecosystem integrity, in order to define sustainable solutions. He is an Associate Editor of Earth’s Future (American Geophysical Union), an alumnus of the Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) group and served as the Energy-Water Nexus Theme lead of the Urban Dynamics Institute at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.
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The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments in the sciences, humanities, fine arts and social sciences, as well as 11 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. The College’s undergraduate Unified Core Curriculum, which routinely receives top grades in national assessments, emphasizes a liberal education characterized by critical thinking, communication, civic engagement and Christian commitment. Arts & Sciences faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit the College of Arts & Sciences website.