IEA: Wind can supply 18% of global electricity demand, but there’s catch – a $150 billion one

A new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) says wind energy could supply 18% of global electricity demand by 2050, but it won't come cheap

According to the new IEA roadmap, if the wind industry can meet the 18% goal, up to 4.8 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions can be avoided every year. Considering the fact that global CO2 emissions rose to a record 36 gigatonnes in 2013, wind energy’s potential seems well worth exploring.

Worldwide cumulative installed capacity of wind energy has blown past early estimates, says the IEA’s Wind Power Technology Roadmap, which notes turbine deployment has more than doubled since 2008 to reach nearly 300 gigawatts (GW).

Technology advances have increased turbine efficiency and decreased wind generation costs, making wind energy cost competitive in many areas, which sets the stage for up to 2,800GW total installed capacity by 2050. But in order to make this low-carbon future a reality, investment must nearly double from today’s levels.

The IEA’s report echoes the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) target of no more than a 2-degree Celsius rise in global mean temperatures to set the importance of decarbonizing the world’s power sector through increased wind energy capacity.

If global energy policies remain constant, the IEA projects carbon emissions from the electricity sector will increase 84% over 2009 levels by 2050. Compare this outlook to other IEA estimates that 48% renewables are needed by 2035 while 850GW of existing coal capacity must be retired to meet the IPCC’s global warming target, and wind’s zero-emission imperative is clear.

Achieving wind energy’s potential will take a dedicated commitment from the public and private sectors. Industry investment today is around $80 billion per year, well short of the IEA’s requisite range of $146-$170 billion per year.

Fortunately, several paths forward exist to span this yawning gap. To start, wind energy has gotten much more cost-competitive with other forms of energy. IEA pegs current land-based wind energy costs at $60-$130 per megawatt-hour, and estimates new installation costs will drop by as much as 25% for land-based wind, and up to 45% for offshore wind by 2050.

These favorable price decreases mean one path toward wind energy’s future runs through some of the most carbon-intense developing nations. China, the world’s largest CO2 emitter, has installed 75GW of global wind energy capacity since 2008 and developing Latin American nations are projected to become one of the wind industry’s hottest markets by 2022. Add it all up, and IEA estimates developing countries will have more than 50% of all global installed capacity by 2050.

Even though developed nations are set to slide back in the overall wind market, IEA sees another path forward for today’s market leaders through progressive policies. Long-term wind energy targets, stable carbon market prices, grid infrastructure improvements, repowering older turbines, and investments in research and development can all help developed nations like the United States and European Union members continue contributing to wind’s overall growth.

Unfortunately for IEA’s wind energy roadmap, however, we live in a cash-constrained world economy. While cumulative wind generation capacity has grown an average of 25% per year since 2000, new installations have fallen since the 2009 as the world dealt with the global economic slowdown.

Despite this slowdown, IEA still expects land-based wind to exceed 500GW by 2018, spurred primarily by China’s rapid expansion. With luck, national policymakers and private investors will see the economic and environmental possibilities of reaching wind energy’s potential, and steer the global energy industry down IEA’s roadmap.

Editor’s note: Silvio Marcacci is Principal at Marcacci Communications. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of ABB or its employees.

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Silvio Marcacci

Silvio Marcacci is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service public relations company focused on clean energy and climate issues, based in Washington, D.C.
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