Renewables must generate 50% of global electricity: IEA

Global investment in green power was led by wind and solar in 2008, and reached a record level of US$112 billion and remained broadly stable in 2009 despite the economic downturn, explains IEA’s ‘Energy Technology Perspectives 2010.’

Many car companies are adding hybrid and all-electric vehicles to their fleets, and 5 million such vehicles could be on the road in the next decade. The rate of energy efficiency improvement in OECD countries has increased to 2% per year, double the rate of the 1990s, and funding for low-carbon energy has increased by one-third between 2005 and 2008, it notes.

“All these efforts are vital if we are successfully to limit climate change, but current developments are still fragmented and fragile, and the rate of progress is still far too low to prevent dangerous increases in global temperatures,” says IEA executive director Nobuo Tanaka. “What we need is rapid, large-scale deployment of a portfolio of low-carbon technologies; we need a massive decarbonisation of the energy system, breaking the historical link between CO2 emissions and economic output, and leading to a new age of electrification.”

More renewables needed in power sector

Decarbonising the electricity sector (the second-largest source of GHG emissions) “must involve dramatically increasing the shares of renewables and nuclear power, and adding carbon capture and storage to plants that consume fossil fuels,” it states. “By 2050, renewable electricity generation would need to represent almost half of electricity generation up from 18% today.”

In addition, 30 new nuclear reactors and 35 coal-fired plants fitted with CCS would be needed every year to 2050, and “a decarbonised electricity supply, combined with smarter grids, would then offer substantial opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions in end-use sectors through increased electrification” such as electric vehicles and electric heat pumps.

“Decarbonising the power sector will be at the heart of efforts to make deep cuts in global CO2 emissions,” because the power sector currently accounts for 41% of energy-related CO2 emissions. IEA’s baseline scenario projects a doubling of emissions by 2050 because of continued reliance on fossil fuels, while its pro-environment scenario achieves a 90% reduction (compared to 2007 levels) in the carbon intensity of electricity generation, with renewables accounting for half of global production and nuclear for slightly less than one-quarter.

“Significant policy change is needed to break the current dependence on fossil fuels in the power sector, as is significant investment,” it adds. The pro-environment scenario requires investment of US$32.8 trillion (40% more than the US$23.5 trillion needed in the baseline scenario), more than half of which is directed towards new power generation plants.

Renewables pose unique challenges

“Some low-carbon generation technologies raise unique challenges, such as system integration needed to support large quantities of variable renewables from wind, solar PV, run-of-river hydropower, and wave and tidal power,” it explains. “Clear, stable, long-term policies that support carbon pricing will be needed to stimulate the technology transition in industry.”

“A truly global and integrated energy technology revolution is essential to address the intertwined challenges of energy security and climate change, while also meeting the growing energy needs of the developing world,” it concludes. “Financing remains a substantial challenge as does identifying appropriate mechanisms to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon technologies in major developing countries.”

“As citizens of a changing world, we all live with a degree of uncertainty at all times; as energy producers and consumers entering a period of rapid change, the sense of uncertainty is likely to be amplified,” it notes. “An energy technology revolution is within reach; achieving it will stretch the capacities of all energy-sector stakeholders and entail substantial upfront costs, but over the long term these will be more than offset by the benefits.”