Some models that predict the role renewable energy will play in 2050 may be over-optimistic and should be used with caution, according to researchers from Imperial College London.

While the proportion of renewable energy is increasing every year, the amount it will increase by 2050 has been much debated.

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The mathematical models used to calculate future estimates take into account factors such as the adoption of new technologies. These models can then be used to produce ‘pathways’ that should ensure these targets are met, such as identifying policies that support certain types of technologies.

However, if the data and physics underpinning the model do not reflect real-world challenges it can give an inaccurate prediction.

A paper published in the journal Joule suggests that studies predicting entire systems can run on near-100% renewable power by 2050 may be flawed.

The researchers believe this is because models do not sufficiently account for how reliable the supply of renewable energy could be, such as regular sun for solar power.

Lead author Clara Heuberger, from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London said: “Mathematical models that neglect operability issues can mislead decision makers and the public, potentially delaying the actual transition to a low carbon economy. Research that proposes ‘optimal’ pathways for renewables must be upfront about their limitations if policymakers are to make truly informed decisions.”

Using data for the UK, the team tested a model for 100% power generation using only wind, water and solar (WWS) power by 2050. They found that the lack of firm backup energy systems, such as nuclear or power plants equipped with carbon capture systems, would result in the power supply failing often enough to deem the system inoperable.

The team found that even if they added a small amount of backup nuclear and biomass energy, creating a 77% WWS system, around 9% of the annual UK demand could remain unmet, leading to considerable power outages and economic damage.

Co-author Dr Niall Mac Dowell, from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial said: “A speedy transition to a decarbonised energy system is vital if the ambitions of the 2015 Paris Agreement are to be realised.

“However, the focus should be on maximising the rate of decarbonisation, rather than the deployment of a particular technology, or focusing exclusively on renewable power.

“Nuclear, sustainable bioenergy, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage are vital elements of a portfolio of technologies that can deliver this low carbon future in an economically viable and reliable manner.

“Finally, these system transitions must be socially viable. If a specific scenario relies on a combination of hypothetical and potentially socially challenging adaptation measures, in addition to disruptive technology breakthroughs, this begins to feel like wishful thinking.”