This article was originally published on Eyes on Environment, part of Nature’s Scitable Network, which hosts dozens of scientists and writers covering the latest research across many disciplines.
Renewable energy production is truly starting to take off. Excluding hydropower, renewable sources are growing by 4.6% per year in developed countries that are part of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). Even better, renewables are growing by 7.4% annually in developing countries outside the OECD, primarily due to Asian and Latin American countries using renewable sources for 48% and 63% of new electricity generation, respectively.
Great news, but then why does a new economic report [1,2] predict that coal and natural gas will still dominate the energy market in 2040? The sobering answer lies in our society’s never-quenched thirst for consumption, which can match or exceed any respectable growth rates in renewable industries.
The good news…
The report is called Looking Ahead: The 50 Trends that Matter, written by a think tank and funded by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Court. This may suggest some bias in the results, but the document mainly serves as a summary of data taken from a multitude of sources such as other think-tanks, corporations, or consulting groups. The report itself does not provide editorial views but merely presents the data and leaves the rest of us to draw conclusions.
So what does the data tell us about the emergence of renewable energy sources? The most hopeful trends emphasize that solar, wind, and geothermal power are here to stay. Electricity production from these sources will continue to expand around the globe, tripling in production by 2040.
In addition, more people than ever have access to electricity. India has dramatically increased reliable electricity production for its citizens since 1990 (although it still has a long way to go) and China now has almost universal access. Overall, 82% of people in this planet now have electricity, one of the most important institutional factors that leads to economic opportunity, education, and health care for so many developing countries.
…Is not enough
At first glance, these numbers suggest that our world is heading toward a completely low-carbon, electric-full future, wind turbines spinning electricity across the Great Plains and solar cells padding the walls of every house in every village of sub-Saharan Africa. The reality is more complicated. Despite the burgeoning renewable energy economy, the report predicts that these sources will only account for 17% of global electricity production by 2040, while coal (31%) and natural gas (24%) will continue to be the major players.
The reason is consumption. As seen in the figure, the world consumed about 12 terawatt-hours of electrical energy in 1990 . By 2040, this energy demand will nearly quadruple to 40 terawatt-hours. By that year, renewable sources alone will have grown enough to offer about 13 terawatt-hours of energy, more than enough to satisfy 1990-level demands. But this is nowhere near enough to keep up with the incredible growth of global thirst for electricity.
Examining the particular shares of each energy source suggests policy solutions to change this trend. Hydropower consistently hovers around 16% of total electricity production, mainly due to a saturation of reasonable locations that limits growth. Other renewable solutions – solar, wind, and geothermal – more than triple from 2020 to 2040, which is quite impressive given the massive scale of economic transformation required for such a transition.
What is most noticeable is the lack of growth in nuclear power, actually declining 5 percent from 1990 to 2040. Nuclear power has its share of hazards, most noticeably nuclear waste, but it’s been shown to be a safe power source, saving millions of lives from pollution-related deaths if it replaces coal sources . The lack of growth in this sector requires coal, oil, and gas to fill in the rest. This data reinforces the necessity for nuclear power to replace much of coal-based power while the renewable industry has time to grow.
An uncertain path
Providing electricity access to developing countries is a primary humanitarian goal of the next three decades. But it’s not just that – electricity allows for economic development, providing opportunities for US investment and reducing unrest and the lack of opportunity that makes terrorist groups so alluring.
This report, however, shows the energy costs for such economic empowerment. Renewables alone cannot keep up with the demand for electricity. The shale revolution will not last forever, either, as the report predicts that Saudi Arabia will take over as lead oil producer again by the 2030’s.
Nuclear is an important option, but so is a renewed emphasis on energy efficiency to reduce consumption. Policymakers must remember that the renewable takeover is not an inevitable feat after a few decades, but rather that coal and gas are cheap, stubborn energy sources that will stick around for some time if we don’t design regulations and promote innovation to change our path.
 Hammami, M. Looking Ahead: The 50 Trends that Matter. Xlibris, 2016.
 Nyquist S and Manyika J. “A reality check for renewable energy.” McKinsey, accessed online March 25, 2016.
 Kharecha PA and Hansen JE. “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power.” Environmental Science and Technology, 47(9), 4889-4895, 2013.
Figure of energy consumption courtesy of McKinsey & Company and Reference