Still time for the energy revolution

By Bryan Walker 25/06/2012

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.