Called SWITCH, the tool was presented by a team from the US-based University of California, Berkeley, at the International Alliance of Research Universities' Sustainability Science Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark on 23 October.
The program determines the most efficient way among a myriad of choices and methods to get to a low-carbon future by shifting away from fossil fuels – thus minimising any environmental harm.
But many nations in the developing world lack the information needed to run these data-intensive calculations, said Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and part of the SWITCH project.
“If you want to do this planning, which has a lot of value, you either have to build national data collection systems or run these scenarios on simulated data, which then brings in significant uncertainties,” he told SciDev.Net at the event.
Money is available for data collection projects, as big data is a “trendy subject” among development donors, he added, but governments often lack the awareness needed to prioritise these activities.
Once the data are there, the tool could help policymakers analyse different choices of technologies, assess their impact on regional air pollution emissions, and work out how much land and water consumption would be needed for each case, said Tessa Beach, a doctoral student at University of California Berkeley as she presented the tool at the event.
The right mix
Beach and her colleagues simulated cost-effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in western North America by 86 per cent compared with pre-1990 levels.
Comparing current energy use with that predicted by 2050, the model calculates the optimal mix of types of power stations, storage and transmission infrastructure, and where they should be built, to reach this goal.
While the reduction of fossil fuels will help to reduce both atmospheric pollution and water consumption, a system reliant on renewable energy will create increasing pressure on land availability, the model found.
SWITCH has so far modelled scenarios for Chile, China and Nicaragua, and the researchers are building versions for other countries too.
However, while any energy system has environmental trade-offs, it is clear that the impact of renewables is dwarfed by the huge footprint of the dirty fossil fuels sector, says Nasir El Bassam, director of the International Research Centre for Renewable Energies, based in Germany.
Huge leaps forward in manufacturing, which reduce the raw materials and energy needed to build renewable energy systems, are set to widen this gulf even further, he adds – so to argue against renewables in a finite world may not be the best approach. “By the end of this century we won’t have any other resources. We have to develop these systems because we don’t have a choice.”