Still time for the energy revolution

The International Energy Agency (IEA) continues to plug the energy transformation necessary if we are to have any hope of staying within a 2oC rise in global temperature.  This month has seen the publication of Energy Technology Perspectives 2012 (ETP 2012) in which they explain the technologies and behaviours that according to the press release “will revolutionise the entire energy system and unlock tremendous economic benefits between now and 2050”.  My references to the book’s content in what follows are derived from the executive summary. (The book is priced.)

ETP 2012 argues that the technologies we already possess are adequate to the task of cutting emissions drastically if used in an integrated way. The resultant overhaul of the world’s energy system by 2050 will not come cheap. Considerable extra investment money will be needed, $36 trillion by their calculation. But that is genuine investment, not cost, and moreover investment with an excellent return of $100 trillion in savings through the reduced use of fossil fuel. Investing in clean energy makes excellent economic sense at the same time as assisting in the mitigation of climate change.

But although the clean energy technology is available our progress in making use of it is too slow. ETP 2012 may be enthusiastic about the potential, but is coldly realistic about the fact that nine out of ten technologies, including some with the largest potential, are failing to meet the necessary deployment objectives. Only a group of more mature renewable energy technologies – including hydro, biomass, onshore wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) – are making sufficient progress. Energy efficiency technologies are slow to be employed, there is a lack of progress in carbon capture and storage (CCS), and offshore wind and concentrated solar power are lagging. In transport, targets for electric vehicles are encouraging but are more than twice the current industry planned capacity. There has been a dramatic fall in public research, development and demonstration (RD&D) since the 1980s, a trend which needs to be reversed. The effect of slow progress in establishing clean energy is worsened by the fact that high-carbon investment and infrastructure fills the gap and becomes locked in.

ETP 2012 emphasises that effective management of complexity and greater reliance on distributed generation are required as energy is obtained from more diverse sources than we have been accustomed to. This means stronger and smarter infrastructure beyond power generation facilities. Remarkable savings are possible from the intelligent operation of energy systems and a greater degree of demand response.

In a message often and increasingly reiterated in current literature ETP 2012 stresses that improved energy efficiency offers the greatest potential for boosting energy security and reduced carbon emissions. The report covers a variety of technological and policy options that would cut the global economy’s per-unit use of energy by two-thirds before 2050.

The report recognises that fossil fuels will not disappear, but emphasises the need for changes in their use. It sees the current increase in the use of coal for electricity generation as the single most problematic trend in the relationship between energy and climate change and urges that where regions are dependent on coal advantage be taken of the significant potential for improvements in the efficiency of coal-fired power generation. Natural gas will continue to play a role, but there are questions around the long-term viability of some gas infrastructure investment if climate change objectives are to be met. Carbon capture and storage remain critical in the long term. CCS is the only technology on the horizon today that would allow that would allow industrial sectors (such as iron and steel, cement and natural gas processing) to meet deep emissions reduction goals. It should not be abandoned.

Governments have a decisive role to play in setting policies to help key technologies become truly competitive and widely used. They should encourage national clean energy technology goals and escalate the ambition of international collaboration. IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven speaks with a touch of exasperation:

“Now that we have identified the solution and the host of related benefits, and with the window of opportunity closing fast, when will governments wake up to the dangers of complacency and adopt the bold policies that radically transform our energy system? To do anything less is to deny our societies the welfare they deserve.”

Stringent and credible clean energy targets along with transparent and predictable supporting policies make investment less risky. A meaningful price on carbon would send a vital price signal to consumers and technology developers. Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies – which in 2011 were almost seven times higher than the support for renewable energy – is critical to level the playing field across all fuels and technologies.  Substantial support for RD&D is essential to stimulate the development of new, breakthrough technologies.

ETP 2012 offers real-world examples which demonstrate that decisive policy action is a catalyst for progress.

The success of some renewable energy technologies provides evidence that new, emerging technologies can break into and successfully compete in the market place. Solar PV has averaged 42% annual growth globally over the last decade; onshore wind has averaged 27%. As a result of strategic and sustained policy support of early stage research, development, demonstration and market deployment, these technologies have reached a stage where the private sector can play a bigger role, allowing subsidies to be scaled back.

ETP 2012 only affirms what reports from many other sources have been saying for some time. But it is significant that it comes from the IEA, an intergovernmental organisation whose 28 member countries between them have the capacity to produce big changes in the energy system. Whether they have the capacity to listen to the advice they are receiving may be moot. But it has been delivered unequivocally and leaves their policy makers without grounds for rejecting it. There is an energy solution to climate change and still just time in which to adopt it.

8 thoughts on “Still time for the energy revolution”

  1. As well as the potential to cut emissions from industrial processes such as Steel and Cement, N fixing is an important consumer of energy. The fertiliser industry (weaning itself off the more costly and depleting guano) followed access to cheap abundant power, initially Norwegian Hydro making Hydro, now Yara, the dominant fertiliser producer. Demand growth outstripped that hydro power, gas was a cheap by-product of oil extraction, and the gas and N fixing plant was cheap to build, so the production moved to the former Soviet union states then to the gulf. Saudi Arabia is now a dominant producer of N fertiliser.
    Trouble is that the value of that gas is going up and we need to burn less of it. Intermittent fixing of N could be a way forward, experimental plant in the US being promising so far. Small distributed producers make opportunistic use of low spot prices (high wind production, high lake levels, high nuclear penetration in periods of low consumer demand). The investment is also progressive rather than sinking funds into giant plants.
    While technology like this is emerging, let’s have no more talk of new lignite powered urea plants.

    1. I agree that we need to reduce steel and concrete production. How are you going to manufacture and deploy all those wind turbines then? These use five times the amount of steel and concrete per MW generated compared with nuclear.

  2. andyS said:

    These use five times the amount of steel and concrete per MW generated compared with nuclear.

    Is this just another figment of your imagination or do you have an honest source for this far fetched nonsense?

    And what about the costs of cleaning up after nuclear? Who will pay or should I say who is paying the 50 billion GBP and 4 Billion GBP to clean up after the mess at Sellafield and Dounreay?

    You are just a joker who cannot see past a lump of coal.

    1. My source was Patrick Moore’s Greenpeace dropout book. If you have an alternative figure then please let me know.

      Nevertheless, there is a lot of steel and concrete required to manufacture any form of power generation, especially wind.

      If you don’t like this then I suggest you stop using power altogether. You might also want to consider not using any steel or concrete derived products whatsoever

      1. I don’t think andyS knows very much about the construction or operation of power plants. If he did, he would know that the CO2 produced during construction of a fossil fuel plant is about 1 g CO2 per KWH whereas the CO2 produced during the burning of the fossil fuel varies between 300 and 900 g CO2 per KWH depending on the type of fossil fuel and efficiency. Thus total CO2 produced will vary between 301 and 901 g CO2 per KWH

        So if, and I think it is a very big “if” considering the source, the wind turbines will produce 5 times the CO2 during construction than power plants they will produce a maximum of 5 g CO2 per KWH attributed to construction. They do not produce CO2 during operation since the wind does not produce any CO2 as it passes through the blades therefore the total CO2 produced by wind turbines is 5g CO2 per KWH.

        So, andyS, since you claim to be a mathematician, which is greater, CO2, produced by fossil fuel power plants or wind turbines? For a bonus mark how much more CO2 do fossil fuel plants produce compared to wind turbines?

        1. Clearly the CO2 will be greater for fossil fuel alone if you treat wind in isolation.
          However, you need to factor in the use of gas backup to counter the down time for wind.

          Some studies have suggested that this will increase CO2 emissions overall as a result of inefficient use of the gas turbines

          Secondly, wind energy is a relatively low energy density so requires more infrastructure – including power transmission lines etc – than a single coal or gas station, hence this also increases the overall footprint of the product

          1. More rubbish from Andy. Here in NZ line losses from the long transport length of power (SI to NI) and more, are in the order of 10% to up to 20% depending on where you live.
            Distributed generation such as small or medium scale regional wind power can reduce line losses significantly.
            There is also a significant gain in resilience of systems which no longer rely on a few mega power plants but instead on a large number of smaller generators.

            1. Thomas June 28, 2012 at 9:01 pm

              More rubbish from Andy

              So having a weak, distributed energy system with long lengths of power lines is more efficient than having compact energy close to major cities?

              As you may be aware, in the UK they are proposing to place huge power pylons (much bigger than the standard size) through national parks, so that they can cable up all the windfarms that they have or are proposing to place in the Scottish Highlands.

              This is of course great news to environmentalists (sic).

              By the way, Thomas, you claimed a while back that wind in NZ has produced more Gwh that coal.
              Every time I look at the live data, coal is producing more energy then wind


              Note that both hydro and geothermal are both greater than wind, but all we hear about from the “environmentalists” (sic) is wind.

              Why is this?

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