Reading the coverage of the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2014 you might come to the conclusion that renewables will flourish, nuclear's future is uncertain, oil supplies are a matter of concern and surprisingly little has been said about coal and gas.
The projections used in the report tell a different story, particularly in the electricity generation sector. This story becomes clearer if we consider each generation source individually when looking at the three scenarios discussed in the report.
- Current Policies: taking account only of current policies, not anticipating any future national or international action to address issues of climate change, energy security and affordability
- New Policies: the central scenario of WEO-2014, taking into account all current policies as well as relevant policy proposals to address climate change, energy security and affordability, but still using up the Earth's carbon budget, as defined by the IPCC.
- 450 Scenario: assumes set of policies introduced to allow CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to peak at 450 ppm, putting us on course to limit climate change warming to 2 degrees C.
The contribution of each generation source
The chart below shows the electricity generation from all sources in 2040 under the three scenarios. The first thing to note is that electricity demand rises in all three scenario. Various levels of energy efficiency are applied in each scenario, but global electricity demand will continue to rise to meet the needs of a global population, when billions today still do not receive adequate electricity supplies.
Looking to nuclear energy, in all three scenarios the amount of nuclear generation increases from 2012 levels. As might be expected, the more effort put in to policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions the greater the amount of nuclear generation forecast.
Separating renewables into individual generation sources shows the different prospects for the different technologies. Hydro remains the main source of generation classed as renewable. Wind shows the greatest growth, with wind, nuclear and hydro becoming the three main players in near-zero carbon emission generation. While other forms of renewables are numerous, their overall contribution to electricity generation remains limited in all scenarios.
The amount of change in the contribution to the generation mix is best illustrated in this second chart. This chart shows the change in the amount of electricity generated, in terawatthours (TWh) for each generation form in all three scenarios. The greatest additional generation from near-zero carbon generators comes from nuclear, wind and hydro. Nuclear and wind both show the greatest growth between the three scenarios, hydro less so, perhaps reflecting that the potential for large hydro to grow will be limited by the availability of suitable sites for dams.
The contributions of the other renewables show more clearly, as they add capacity to a very low current baseline.
What this graph makes clear is that the greatest uncertainty is over the future of fossil fuels. Unconstrained in the current policies scenario, coal and gas-fired electricity generation will grow far more than either nuclear or any renewable. The introduction of new policies currently on the table has a markedly different effect on coal and gas. Coal sees a significant fall in generation, as carbon policies begin to bite, but gas sees a growth in additional generation, replacing one fossil fuel with another.
A future of fossil fuel uncertainty
The coal to gas switch of the New Policies would leave us in an impossible situation where the world's carbon emission budget would be used up by 2040. To have a chance of limiting global warming to an average of 2C, according to the IPCC, no further greenhouse gas emissions would be possible. All fossil fuel generation would have to be switched off on 1 January 2041.
It is only the 450 Scenario that sets us on a more practical path of emissions reduction, greater at first, but allow a more manageable retirement of the remaining fossil fuel generation over the second half of the century.
With these scenarios a clearer picture emerges. Nuclear, wind and hydro will lead the growth in near-zero carbon generation. The amount of growth will depend on the international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This commitment will also encourage the growth of other renewables. The uncertainty in electricity generation to 2040 lies in the futures of coal and gas.