How much renewable energy will the world consume in the coming decades? That depends on who you ask.
If you’re an oil company with a stake in the continued use of fossil fuels, you’ll probably downplay the penetration of renewables. If you’re an international organization with a conservative reputation, you’ll probably see moderate growth. And if you’re an advocacy organization actively working to stop the burning of fossil fuels, you’ll likely project the highest growth of renewables possible.
And that’s exactly what we see in the graph below illustrating the range of projections from ExxonMobil, the International Energy Agency, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and Greenpeace. The compilation of scenarios was published in the REN21 Renewables Global Status Report, a yearly assessment of the global market for renewable energy.
Currently, renewables make up 17 percent of final energy. About 9 percent of that is from “traditional biomass” and another 8 percent is from “modern” renewables like wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuels.
The scenarios reflect final energy consumption — meaning the actual fuel, BTUs, and electrons converted from renewable resources. They reflect assumptions about technology readiness, abundance of fossil fuels, and the need to address climate change.
Not surprisingly, the oil companies don’t see much growth. Both ExxonMobil and BP (BP’s is not shown here) predict that renewables will account for only 15 percent of final energy between 2030 and 2040.
The International Energy Agency, which has historically underestimated the growth of renewables globally, issued a few scenarios in its 2012 outlook. On the lower end — even assuming new policies to limit temperature rise to 4 degrees Celsius — the IEA projects 27 percent renewables by 2035. The organization’s higher scenario, outlining what it would take to limit global temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius, shows global renewables penetration at 41 percent by 2050.