IEA has concluded that owing to “persistent policy uncertainties” renewable energy is not expanding quickly enough to allow the world to meet its climate targets . This brief post concludes that renewable energy will not expand quickly enough to meet the world’s present climate targets even if these uncertainties are removed.
The International Energy Agency recently released its 2015 Renewable Energy Medium-Term Market Report, which contains IEA’s projections of global renewable energy growth through 2020. The full report costs 80 euros, but fortunately there’s enough information in the (free) Executive Summary, Slides and 2014 IEA Report to put a short story together.
1. Increasingly affordable renewables …..
2. …. are set to dominate the growing power systems of the world
3. Yet wavering policy commitments risk undermining investor confidence and are dampening growth
We will look at these three statements in sequence.
“Increasingly affordable renewables …..”
IEA’s 2015 report provides no specifics on renewables generation costs but the 2014 report does, with levelized cost estimates for 2013, 2014 and 2020 given in Figure 6:
The emphasis is obviously on “increasingly” rather than “affordable”. According to IEA onshore wind is the only large-scale renewable generation technology that presently comes close to being competitive with “new coal” and “new gas”, and IEA’s costs do not include the costs of maintaining the backup load-following capacity needed to cover periods when the wind doesn’t blow. Midpoint levelized costs scaled off the Figure for utility-scale solar PV ($130/MWh), CSP ($160), bioenergy ($160) and offshore wind ($190) are projected to be still at least a factor of two higher than levelized coal ($65) and gas ($70) costs in 2020.
“…. are set to dominate the growing power systems of the world”
Here I had to do a little work to estimate how dominant renewables are set to be. I began with Tables 1 and 2 of the 2014 IEA report, reproduced below for reference. These tables give the following average capacity factors for the year 2020:
- Hydropower: installed capacity 1,360GW, generation 4,669TWh, capacity factor 39.2%
- Non-hydro renewables: installed capacity 1,195GW, generation 2,644TWh, capacity factor 25.3%
I now take this graphic from the 2015 IEA report …
…. scale off the renewable capacity additions (hydropower = 130GW, non-hydro renewables = 580GW, as closely as I can measure them) and convert them into TWh using the above capacity factors. This adds 446TWh of hydro and 1,285TWh of non-hydro to the 2014 renewables generation totals. The 2020 total now becomes:
- Hydropower = 3,982 + 446 = 4,428TWh
- Non-hydro renewables = 1,432 + 1,285 = 2,717TWh
- Total = 7,135TWh.
This number is essentially the same as the 7,173TWh that IEA projected in its 2014 report.
What fraction of 2020 total global energy consumption does 7,145TWh represent? My eyeball projection of BP’s global primary energy consumption data to 2020 gives about 63,000TWh, so about 11%. This, however, hardly qualifies as dominance.
And most of the 11% comes from hydro, which is unlikely to grow much more. If we look at only the fast-growing “new renewables” – wind, solar, biomass etc. – the percentage falls to only 4%. This isn’t remotely dominant. It’s insignificant.
Over a year ago in Renewable energy growth in perspective I showed this graphic:
Original Caption: Figure 6: Percentage of Global Energy Generated by Wind, Solar & Biomass, 1965-2013
Here is the same graphic updated through 2020 using the IEA projections:
“Yet, wavering policy commitments risk undermining investor confidence and are dampening growth”
According to IEA:
The annual deployment trend is expected to slow due to persistent policy and market integration uncertainties in some areas, notably Europe and Japan …
Translation: Renewable energy growth to date has been underpinned by generous subsidies but is slackening because Japan and a number of European countries are no longer handing them out. The only way to get growth back on track is … bring back the subsidies.
And the impact of the slackening growth?
Consequently, global growth under the Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report (MTRMR) main case forecast ….. falls short of what’s needed to put renewables on track to meet longer-term climate change objectives.
After expenditures of several trillion dollars “new renewables” (i.e. excluding hydro) still fill only 4% of global energy demand, and with the infusion of yet more $trillion they might grow to fill maybe 10% of it in a few decades’ time. The world’s climate change objectives, however, call for far more immediate and drastic action. Carbonbrief.org, which keeps track of these things, gives us as little as 21 years:
Scientists say it is still theoretically possible to limit warming to two degrees as long as we stick within a fixed carbon budget. So how big is the budget? It is likely that we’ll stay below two degrees as long as we emit no more than about 2,900 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, the IPCC says. We’ve already emitted 1,900 billion tonnes, leaving a remaining budget of just 1,000 billion tonnes that we can emit between now and forever. At current rates we’ll use that quota up within 21 years. If we’re willing to accept a higher risk of breaching the two degree target then our budget would be a bit bigger. It might last 33 years at current emissions rates, instead of 21 years. If the earth is less sensitive to emissions than we thought, that would increase the budget too: we could emit more carbon and still stay below two degrees. But at current rates we would burn through that extra allowance in about a decade. Whether climate sensitivity is lower than thought or not, we don’t have many years left to significantly cut emissions.
Obviously wind, solar and other “new renewables” will not be capable of meeting present climate change objectives by themselves. If the world is to save itself from climate change another solution is needed. What might it be?