Global efforts for the first time are underway to influence a shift toward low-carbon energy sources and to renewables, but the transition would create new challenges unlike any other in history, according to a report by IHS Inc. and the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The report, issued at last week’s IHS CERAWeek 2013 in Houston, examines a framework to understand the potential changes worldwide in the energy mix and how a transition to low-carbon sources might unfold. Researchers relied on data from other energy transitions over the past 250 years and analyzed the factors that could drive changes in the coming decades.

Expectations have to take into account current world realities, according to the researchers. Transitioning to low-carbon sources and renewables will take time, as have all previous energy movements. Close to 87% of the world’s total energy demand primarily is met by oil, natural gas and coal; it’s 92% including nuclear power. “Wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels and other nonhydro renewable resources, while growing rapidly, provide at this time just 1.6% of total world energy,” the study found.

“Although overall consumption will grow and the share of low-carbon and no-carbon sources will also grow significantly, the energy mix in 2030 will not be too different from what it is today,,” said IHS Vice Chairman Dan Yergin. “Beyond 2030, the impact of innovation and research and development, as well as prices and government policies, will have an increasingly large impact in terms of altering the mix.”

WEF’s Roberto Bocca, head of energy industries, said the “general assumption is that we will gravitate toward a world dominated by renewables. Surprisingly, though, this transition will be different than in the past where the energy mix moved from one fuel to another, like from wood to coal. What we’ll see in the future instead will be a transition from some energy sources to many energy sources, i.e. from a diverse energy mix to a set of diversified energy mixes.”

Transitioning to low-carbon and renewables also would require a “fundamental shift in the nature of the electricity system,” the report found. “Sources such as wind, solar and biomass have less energy density than other sources. The current electricity system consists mostly of generation plants built near demand centers with raw fuels shipped to the generation plant. Shifting to renewable sources of power, which have less energy density and are more geographically dispersed, would require turning this system on its head toward one based on more local production of energy with significant investments in transmission required to get power to where it is needed.”

In addition, the intermittency of wind and solar is a challenge. Traditional power plants may run almost continuously and ramp up or down to meet demand, but wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.

“Reducing power generation from fossil fuels when intermittent sources are available is good for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but [it] means that the fossil fuel plants will produce less power to cover their fixed costs,” said IHS Director Samantha Gross, who is in charge of integrated research. “Some fossil fuel plants also run less efficiently when they cycle up and down, adding costs to the power system as a whole. Accounting for these system wide costs is a subject that will gain greater attention as the share of renewables grows.”

Utility-scale electricity storage offers a potential solution to challenges from intermittency, but it has to date proved elusive, according to the report. “A storage system that would allow power to be stored — in a battery, flywheel or other device — and retrieved at low cost would be the ‘holy grail’ in this endeavor, making intermittent sources steady and reliable. However, the pattern of future energy demand growth, coming almost entirely from developing countries, could be an advantage for the transition to renewables. The distributed nature of renewable power sources is a natural fit for providing modern energy to areas with minimal infrastructure, if challenges of cost can be overcome.”

“Rapidly developing countries have the opportunity to leap-frog to new technologies and build low-carbon infrastructure right away,” Gross said. “Such a leap-frog effect occurred in the telecommunication industry where mobile phone service became available in areas that never had wired service.”

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