First-ever global life cycle assessment of renewable energy future

wind farm
The Shepherds Flat Wind Farm is an 845 MW wind farm in the U.S. state of Oregon. Credit: Steve Wilson / Wikipedia.

A future where electricity comes mostly from low-carbon sources is not only feasible in terms of material demand, but will significantly reduce air pollution, a study published in the today's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says.

An international team led by Edgar Hertwich and Thomas Gibon from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology conducted the first-ever global comprehensive life cycle assessment of the long-term, wide-scale implementation of electricity generation from renewable resources.

"This is the first study that has assembled and scaled up the assessment of individual technologies to the whole world and assessed technology implementation to 2050, taking the environmental impacts of production into account," Hertwich said.

The researchers did the study because so little is known about the environmental costs of a widespread global shift to such as wind and solar power, and what the effect of this shift might have on material requirements.

"Would the shift to low-carbon energy systems increase or decrease other types of pollution?" the researchers asked.

Previous efforts to answer this question have typically looked at single issues, such as selected pollutants, or the effects on land use or need for raw materials, such as metals. Previous studies have also neglected to look at the interactions between different technologies, the researchers said.

To address these shortfalls, Hertwich and his colleagues developed an integrated hybrid model.

An important aspect of the model was that "it allowed the integration of electricity produced by these prospective technologies back into the economic model," Gibon said.

The researchers looked at concentrating , photovoltaics, wind power, hydropower, and gas- and coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS). They also assumed that the efficiency of the production of important raw materials, such as aluminum, copper, nickel, iron and steel, for example, would improve over time.

The researchers used two different energy scenarios developed by the International Energy Agency to assess how renewable energy would perform.

The first of these was the Baseline scenario, in which global electricity production is assumed to increase by 134% between 2007 and 2050, and where fossil fuels maintain their high share in the mix, accounting for two-thirds of the total. Under this scenario, coal-based generation is 149% higher in 2050 than in 2007, accounting for 44% of all power generation.

The other was the BLUE map scenario, which assumes that electricity demand in 2050 is 13% lower than in the Baseline scenario because of increased energy efficiency, and that the power sector emits less pollutants from by reducing their use and adopting carbon capture and storage technologies, along with an increase in the use of renewable energies.

Low carbon technologies can demand much more use of per unit of power generation than conventional fossil fuel plants, the researchers noted. For example, photovoltaic systems need 11-40 times more copper than fossil fuel production, while wind power plants need 6-14 times more iron than fossil fuel production.

The researchers characterized these material demands from a broader perspective as "manageable but not negligible." For example, the amount of copper needed to build out photovoltaic systems by 2050 represents just 2 years of current copper production.

The demand for iron and steel would increase by a mere 10 percent, while the demand for aluminum will decrease. The change will also decrease air pollution and reduce fossil fuel extraction.

"Energy production-related climate change mitigation targets are achievable, given a slight increase in the demand for iron or cement, as two examples, and will reduce the current emission rates of air pollutants," Gibon said.

The human health benefits are clear, Hertwich said.

"Pursuing climate mitigation will limit the human health impacts from air pollution, while continuing with business as usual will increase it," he said.

Explore further

Coal more risky than renewables

More information: Integrated life cycle assessment of electricity supply scenarios confirms global environmental benefit of low-carbon technologies. Hertwich et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014.
Citation: First-ever global life cycle assessment of renewable energy future (2014, October 6) retrieved 17 September 2019 from
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Oct 06, 2014
nuclear power could have accomplished this already if it weren't so intertwined with the politics of proliferation.

in a world where a revolutionary set of solar and wind and hydro and geothermal advances are reached------the questino is , which set of industrialization 3.0 technologies becomes so potent for generating energy that it determines the next epoch of war.

will the tropics become prized real estate due to their abundance of sun? will geothermal hotspots become fought over? will the bay of fundy become a hydropower behemoth?

or will we simply put all these cloudy dreams aside and just burn coal because there's hundreds of years worth of coal left in the ground. hundreds if not thousands.

probably...a little of both.

Oct 06, 2014
Tell this to Germany!


Oct 06, 2014
We will employ distributed power, with many of us generating, and all of us using. It is Ultimate Capitalism, where everybody gets to choose to be a supplier or a user, or both, as their circumstances permit.

And, of course, it is also "From him according to his abilities, to him according to his needs".

Oct 07, 2014
Tell this to Germany!


Wow...That article just drips with hyperbole. "I am shocked, shocked I say!"
(Oh, and it misses reality on all counts by a country mile. The 'facts' they cite are completely ludicrous)

Oct 07, 2014
Using renewables to generate the world's electricity would be fantastic but most of the fossil fuels burned in the world are used in transportation. Until we figure out a climate-friendly way of moving our cars, trucks, planes and ships, GHG emissions are going to continue to increase even if 100% of the world's electricity is generated via renewables.

Oct 07, 2014
It's a fact that renewables have the potential to greatly reduce the negative effects pollution has on our environment, public health, and even our economy. Although there are definitely environmental and material costs we must consider if we are to transition towards increased use of renewables like solar more Research should be done on their long-term effects and actions must be taken to address them. Solar energy can save home and business owners on rising electricity costs as they reduce their own emissions by 3-4 tons. Renewables provide more solutions than problems when it comes to pollution.

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