The International Energy Agency (IEA) has called for governments worldwide to commit to tripling global renewable capacity by 2030, much ahead of COP28. While 118 nations pledged to do so at the ongoing COP28 sidelines in Dubai, key players such as India, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia have not.

The plan remains aspirational, and no country-level renewable energy increase targets have been fixed. It also needed to be negotiated.

According to IEA projections, the global share of renewables in power generation is anticipated to jump from 28 per cent in 2021 to 80 per cent by 2050, while coal’s contribution will dwindle to 3 per cent. Three primary renewable energy sources and their shares in global power generation are hydroelectric (16.1 per cent), wind (5.6 per cent), and solar (3.8 per cent).

The audacity of the ‘Tripling the Renewables’ proposal opens a dialogue on rapidly boosting the renewable energy production. Is this feasible? Let’s understand the possible challenges in increasing the production of hydroelectric, wind, and solar energies in a short period.

Large dams create 90 per cent of hydroelectric energy. Constructing them is becoming increasingly difficult. The environmental advocacy groups highlight the potential ecological impact of large-scale hydroelectric projects, including their effects on wildlife and watersheds. This opposition, coupled with a need for more extensive and more suitable water bodies and regulatory hurdles, present significant challenges to expanding and relying on hydroelectric power as a primary energy source.

Hydroelectric power is 57 per cent of renewable energy. Tripling hydroelectric capacity by 2030 is unlikely. To triple renewable energy by 2030, solar and wind output must increase by at least five times. The table provides detailed data on how much solar and wind energy need to grow to achieve this for the world, the US, and India.

The COP 28 pledge focuses on boosting renewable energy but doesn’t specify reducing the overall share of fossil fuels. Countries like the US, where fossil fuels are still 80 per cent of energy generation, could continue increasing fossil fuel production. In 2020, the US gave the fossil fuel industry a $2-trillion subsidy. Fossil fuels cause over 80 per cent of greenhouse emissions. Renewables, while cleaner, face their unique challenges.

Solar Energy

Solar power is limited to daylight hours, causing a mismatch with evening peak energy demand. This inconsistency requires costly and efficient energy storage solutions. Large solar projects also need a lot of land, which can cause land use conflicts.The manufacturing and disposal of solar panels have environmental impacts, too, including greenhouse gas emissions and recycling challenges. Plus, many countries depend on China for solar panels or raw materials, increasing import costs.

Wind Energy

Wind power depends heavily on weather conditions. The best sites are used first, leaving less efficient locations. Producing wind turbines also creates significant greenhouse gas emissions due to using materials like steel and concrete.

Both solar and wind energy face the challenge of intermittency, making them unreliable for consistent baseload power. They produce electricity in fluctuating amounts. When they generate too much power, existing grids can’t quickly reduce production from conventional plants, leading to an energy surplus. This was a minor issue when renewables were a small part of the grid, but managing this variability becomes more complex as they approach 30-40 per cent of total power.

This intermittency requires backup power sources or ample energy storage, affecting efficiency and cost. Storage solutions like pumped storage are often more expensive than generating electricity itself. Despite these challenges, renewable energy capacity has more than doubled globally in the past decade, with costs declining significantly. By 2035, renewable electricity generation is expected to surpass fossil fuel production.

India has made significant strides in renewable energy over the past decade. Its installed non-fossil fuel capacity has increased by about 400 per cent in the last 8.5 years and stands at more than 200 GW (including large hydro and nuclear), nearly half of the country’s total capacity.

India’s solar energy capacity has grown manifold over the decade to about 70 GW. India is quietly working on energy transition and may not be expected to sign an negotiated pledge.

Budget constraints

Nonetheless, transitioning to renewables without financial support remains a daunting task. The US’s plan to invest $370 billion in clean energy and the EU’s commitment of over $1 trillion by 2030 highlight the financial aspect of this transition. Such investments burden poorer countries, potentially impacting their budgets for essential services like education and healthcare.

Climate discussions often overlook the limitations of current technology, the need for financial support, reliance on imports for renewable energy technology, and the financial challenges faced by less affluent countries. Despite numerous global climate meetings, worldwide emissions continue to rise.

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and all subsequent advances that have transformed human societies have been based on a source of cheap, concentrated energy — coal, oil or nuclear. To expect the same level of wealth in an economy based on far less dense forms of energy, such as wind and solar, is challenging at a technical level.

Complete replacement of fossil fuels with renewables would require multiple forms of new technology, which either have not yet been invented or have yet to be proven commercially.

As the world strives to increase the share of renewables in its energy mix, a hard-headed, and technologically innovative approach is imperative. We must address these challenges head-on to make a meaningful impact on reducing global emissions and achieving a sustainable energy future.

The writer is founder, Global Trade Research Initiative, a research group focussed on trade, technology and climate change