IEA: We underestimated solar but we're still in serious strife

The International Energy Agency has admitted they badly underestimated solar PV's potential and now foresee the potential for solar to be the biggest source of power by 2040. But based on current trends we're bound for 6 degree temperature rise with coal remaining the king.

The International Energy Agency has released a progress report on how the world is tracking in decarbonising its energy supply and progressing low carbon technologies, and the result is not good. 

It finds that while clean energy technology deployment in emerging economies has rallied over the past year – making up for declines in the industrialised world – the overall picture of progress remains bleak. Indeed, the level of progress described in this year's report is, according to the IEA, arguably less than what was documented in the IEA's previous tracking report in 2013. 

The agency believes that on current trends in energy supply and use the world is headed to a 6-degree Celsius rise in temperature which it observes would have “potentially devastating results.” 

According to the IEA’s executive director, Maria van der Hoeven, "we're on the wrong path at the moment".

She added, "Growing use of coal globally is overshadowing progress in renewable energy deployment, and the emissions intensity of the electricity system has not changed in 20 years despite some progress in some regions. A radical change of course at the global level is long overdue."

The key messages from the report are detailed below.

We can contain temperature rise to 2 degrees without major sacrifice, but need to get cracking

Using the same projections for population and gross domestic product, the IEA find that we could still meet our needs for energy while containing temperature rise to just 2 degrees instead of 6 degrees. 

Key to this is making greater use of cost effective energy efficiency technologies which they believe could contain global energy demand growth to 25 per cent between now and 2050 instead of the 70 per cent growth path we’re on presently. 

To keep temperature rise to 2 degrees an additional $US44 trillion in investment is needed out to by 2050, but the IEA notes, “this represents only a small portion of global GDP and is offset by over $US115 trillion in fuel savings, resulting in net savings of $US71 trillion. Even adopting a 10 per cent discount rate, the net savings are more than $US5 trillion.”

Unfortunately the IEA notes that its latest estimate compares to $US36 trillion in its prior progress report which it notes helps illustrate that, “the longer we wait, the more expensive it becomes to transform our energy system.”

Coal is still the malevolent king

The unrelenting rise in coal use is overwhelming progress in addressing emissions across all other areas. While there has been spectacular growth in Solar PV and wind plus the emergence of shale gas in the US, growth in coal-fired generation since 2010 has been greater than that of all non-fossil sources combined, continuing a 20-year trend. 

Not only is the globe installing too much coal, it’s also installing inefficient coal power stations. The report notes that 60 per cent of new coal capacity built in the past decade was subcritical, the least efficient class of commercially available coal-fired generation technologies. 

Shale gas is no saviour

The report notes that gas will play a useful role in the short term as a displacement fuel for coal and as a highly flexible power source to balance out the variability of wind and solar. But it notes, “in the medium to longer term, gas must be seen for what it is – a transitional fuel, not a low-carbon solution.” 

The report finds that under a scenario where global leaders actually did what they promise – keeping temperature rise to 2 degrees – by 2025 emissions from gas-fired plants are higher than the average carbon intensity of the global electricity mix. At this point the IEA declare, “natural gas loses its status as a low-carbon fuel.”

Solar is progressing beyond expectations

The International Energy Agency has been slow to recognise solar’s potential, historically foreseeing only a tiny role for the technology. This latest report marks a decisive shift in attitude.

They note that the 2020 stretch target for solar PV installations in their 2010 Solar Technology Roadmap will likely be achieved by 2016. And in their latest projections have boosted global PV installed capacity by 2020 to 354 GW, 40 per cent above earlier expectations.

They now believe that under their core 2 degree scenario that solar PV would deliver 10 per cent of the world’s electricity and solar thermal 7 per cent by 2050. This would mean solar provided more electricity than natural gas. They note that under a scenario where nuclear and CCS fall short of expectations solar could even represent the largest source of power supply by 2040.

Wind and hydro also showing good progress, and variability manageable

The report notes that in addition to solar PV, wind and hydro are presently “forging ahead”. It notes that wind power’s investments costs have declined by 15 per cent since 2010 while they are now able to better exploit sites with lower wind speeds. It also notes that experience with wind and solar is showing that its variability in output can be managed. 

Carbon capture and storage as well as nuclear are falling short of expectations

Progress with both nuclear power and the use of technology to capture and store carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants have been disappointing. 

The IEA note that the future of CCS is uncertain; and the technology is advancing slowly, due to high costs and lack of political and financial commitment. As a consequence, the near-term deployment projection has been revised downwards, with just 4 GW of power capacity expected to be fitted with the technology by 2020.

Global nuclear capacity is stagnating at this time as a modest capacity increase from new reactors coming on line in developing nations has been offset by the retirement of ageing or non-profitable plants in developed countries.

Little role seen for electrical storage technology

The IEA remains a bear on the need for and competitiveness of electrical storage technology, such as batteries. It states, “At current costs and performance levels, particularly for high-power and high-energy applications, it falls short of delivering the conceptual flexibility potential when compared with competing options.”

The way the IEA sees it, there are plenty of options available for managing the variability of output from high levels of solar and wind power including demand management, grid extensions and greater use of fast response gas power stations. They see these as more cost effective options than use of batteries, or hydrogen or compressed air.

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