On the History and Future of 100% Renewable Energy Systems Research

Research on 100% renewable energy systems is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was initiated in the mid-1970s, catalyzed by skyrocketing oil prices. Since the mid-2000s, it has quickly evolved into a prominent research field encompassing an expansive and growing number of research groups and organizations across the world. The main conclusion of most of these studies is that 100% renewables is feasible worldwide at low cost. Advanced concepts and methods now enable the field to chart realistic as well as cost- or resource-optimized and efficient transition pathways to a future without the use of fossil fuels. Such proposed pathways in turn, have helped spur 100% renewable energy policy targets and actions, leading to more research. In most transition pathways, solar energy and wind power increasingly emerge as the central pillars of a sustainable energy system combined with energy efficiency measures. Cost-optimization modeling and greater resource availability tend to lead to higher solar photovoltaic shares, while emphasis on energy supply diversification tends to point to higher wind power contributions. Recent research has focused on the challenges and opportunities regarding grid congestion, energy storage, sector coupling, electrification of transport and industry implying power-to-X and hydrogen-to-X, and the inclusion of natural and technical carbon dioxide removal (CDR) approaches. The result is a holistic vision of the transition towards a net-negative greenhouse gas emissions economy that can limit global warming to 1.5°C with a clearly defined carbon budget in a sustainable and cost-effective manner based on 100% renewable energy-industry-CDR systems. Initially, the field encountered very strong skepticism. Therefore, this paper also includes a response to major critiques against 100% renewable energy systems, and also discusses the institutional inertia that hampers adoption by the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as possible negative connections to community acceptance and energy justice. We conclude by discussing how this emergent research field can further progress to the benefit of society.

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