Energy Future

How will we power the planet in 2050?

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
A paddleboarder is pictured on the water near Leasowe at Liverpool Bay in the Irish Sea at sunset on August 15, 2016.
Paul Ellis | AFP | Getty Images

The world's energy mix is changing – and fast.

A recent report from the World Energy Council found that renewable sources of power now represent around 30 percent of the world's total capacity and 23 percent of total global electricity production.

The WEC added that in the last 10 years, wind and solar power had seen "explosive average annual growth" of 23 percent and 50 percent.

Fossil fuels remain key to powering the planet, however, and as concerns over climate change and energy security mount, the question of what our planet's energy mix will look like in 2050 is becoming increasingly pressing.

Here, CNBC speaks to energy experts about what the planet's energy mix might look like in 2050.

A change is gonna come

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There does appear to be an appetite for a change, evidenced by last year's historic agreement at the COP21 summit in Paris.

There, world leaders agreed to make sure global warming stayed "well below" 2 degrees Celsius and to "pursue efforts" to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

"If the world is serious about tackling climate change, the world's energy mix in 2050 will have to look fundamentally different from the one we have today," Gunnar Luderer, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), told CNBC via email.

"Limiting global warming to well below 2°C, as agreed by the international community at the climate summit in Paris last year, requires close to carbon-free electricity supply and a drastic reduction of fossil fuel use in the industry, transportation and buildings sectors," Luderer added.

Bearing all of the above in mind, solar looks set to have a very big role to play in the world's energy mix.

In 2014, the International Energy Agency stated that the sun could be the planet's biggest source of electricity by 2050.

"With the emergence of renewable energy technologies as the top sources of new power for the United States, we've entered a new paradigm that's here to stay," Tom Kimbis, interim president of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), told CNBC via email. "Solar is at the heart of this revolution," he added.

"Innovative, high-tech and inexpensive, solar is a disruptive force whose growth (has) been highly unsettling (to) entrenched energy producers. It's not a question of if solar will power our economy -- nor a question of when -- but how quickly."

Other renewables are also pushing hard for a bigger slice of the energy pie. Wind energy is one such source. According to WindEurope, the offshore wind industry in Europe saw 14 billion euros ($15.67 billion) in new investments in the first six months of 2016.

"With the great leaps that wind energy has made in cost reduction in recent years, there is no reason why it should not be the centerpiece of energy systems around the world, particularly Europe," Oliver Joy, spokesperson for WindEurope, told CNBC via email. "Wind keeps getting cheaper," Joy added.

"Costs for onshore wind are expected to fall by 41 percent by 2040 as larger turbines with higher energy capture make the economics even more attractive. Offshore wind is also rapidly moving down the cost curve."

Joy went on to add that wind energy was able to meet 12 percent of Europe's electricity demand, with WindEurope seeing that figure rising to 28 percent of demand by 2030, provided the right policy decisions were made.

For the PIK's Gunnar Lederer, "the resource potential for solar and wind is vast."

End of the road for fossil fuels?

Coal miners finishing their shift on March 4, 2016 in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province of China.
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While agreements such as the one made at COP21 signal willing among the majority of the planet's governments to enact change, the question of whether fossil fuels have any kind of role to play in the future remains.

For its part, SEIA is positive about the ability of solar to become a dominant force not just in the years to come, but now.

"In the last decade, solar has grown an average of 65 percent per year in the U.S. and its share of our nation's electricity mix is set to quadruple in the next five years while costs continue to plummet," the SEIA's Kimbis said.

"By 2020, we will have tripled our solar electricity capacity to 100 gigawatts, enough to power more than 20 million homes," he added.

"As for global implications, if we are to have a realistic hope of tackling the world's catastrophic global warming dilemma, rapid deployment of zero-carbon solar across the globe must start now," Kimbis went on to explain.

Hurdles remain, however, if a fossil fuel-free world is to become a reality.

"The greatest challenge will be to eliminate fossils from activities such as aviation, freight and long-range transportation, as well as certain industrial processes - sectors that we refer to as 'decarbonization bottle-necks'," Luderer said.

"An important topic of current research is to what extent hydrogen, sustainably grown biomass or renewables-based synthetic fuels can substitute for fossil fuels," he added.

Authorities also needed to start planning for the future right away, according to WindEurope's Joy. "For the future, policymakers need to start thinking about repowering," he said.

"Up to 76 GW of Europe's onshore and offshore wind energy capacity will come to the end of their operational life between 2020 and 2030," he added.

"Replacing old, first and second generation turbines with state of the art units will mean higher energy capture at existing sites to make the most of the wind resource. It will also benefit energy security as repowered projects can contribute to power system stability and balancing."