The International Energy Agency’s Bizarre Roadmap For Global Decarbonization

The International Energy Agency published an interesting, but bizarre, roadmap for decarbonizing the global energy sector by 2050. The bizarre part comes from some of their assumptions, projections and recommendations for achieving net-zero emissions (NZE), some of which seem to…

The International Energy Agency published an interesting, but bizarre, roadmap for decarbonizing the global energy sector by 2050. The bizarre part comes from some of their assumptions, projections and recommendations for achieving net-zero emissions (NZE), some of which seem to contradict a few of their recent recommendations.

A lot has been written on the study, including many skeptical responses (see Robert Bryce’s discussion in Real Clear Energy). The skeptical part comes from IEA’s projection that total global energy use will drop over the next 30 years, when all indications are that it will increase as almost 3 billion more people are born needing an additional 10 trillion kWh/year alone, and as the billion or so energy poor of today will (and should) increase their energy consumption and climb into the middle class, requiring another trillion kWh/year (see figure below). IEA’s projected energy mix in 2050 to achieve NZE is 20% fossil fuel, 66% renewables split between wind, solar, hydroelectricity, bioenergy and geothermal, and about 15% nuclear. Although fossil fuel use drops to a quarter of its present value in order to attain NZE, it does not go anywhere near zero. Much of the remaining is used in applications where the fuels are not combusted and so do not result in any direct CO2 emissions. Some of the rest use carbon capture and sequestration, and significant amounts are still used in producing non‐energy goods or in sectors where alternatives are especially hard to employ, like heavy industry and long‐distance transport. Contrary to IEA projection of declining global energy use over the next 30 years needed to achieve … [+] net-zero emissions, most other projections, like our EIA, predict an increase in energy with fossil fuels still providing over 50% of our primary energy. EIA MORE FOR YOUThe Supreme Court’s Pipeline Decision Shows DC Still Has Adults In The RoomAs U.S. Temperatures Spike, So Does The Need For Natural GasWhither The Cost Of Solar Power? As discussed in Nuclear Street, the IEA report sets out more than 400 milestones that would help achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. These include no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects and the assumption that the global electricity sector has already reached net-zero emissions by 2040. In addition, by 2035, there would be no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars. The NZE scenario assumes we open 20 battery giga-factories every year between now 2030 to satisfy battery demand
for electric cars in the NZE, something we might actually do. But there is no way we can build the 3 billion electric vehicles by 2035 to replace internal combustion engines – most projections have that at only 500 million. The problem is the world doesn’t seem to be on-board with IEA’s hopes, certainly not in the time-frame needed. China is still building significant coal and gas, along with a lot of everything else, including 180 large nuclear plants (a very hopeful sign). China’s energy use is projected to rise continually until at least 2035, when they hope to cap their ever-rising coal consumption. They don’t expect to cap their growing natural gas consumption until 2040, and they don’t expect to reach net-zero emissions until 2060 at the earliest. India’s energy will continue to climb as well, even after doubling between 2000 and 2020, particularly to raise most of their population up out of poverty, which will require almost as much energy as China uses now because India’s population will exceed China’s in the next several years. The pandemic is still hitting them hard and is delaying both economic recovery and their path towards a net-zero future. The same with Africa, where most of the world’s population growth will occur over the next few decades. Africa, too, will exceed the population of China. Again, this will require a lot of energy. There is little evidence that global energy use will decrease anytime soon. In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects world energy use to increase about 30% by 2050. Even though renewables increase the most in EIA’s projections, all fossil fuels continue to increase. So if the IEA’s roadmap to NZE depends on a decline beginning in the next year or so, we will be sorely disappointed. Of course, the IEA projection is really a requirement for decarbonization, regardless of its likelihood of occurrence. But the biggest mistake they made is not encouraging enough expansion of nuclear power. The report states that nuclear energy will make a “significant contribution” to their Net Zero Emissions scenario, and will provide an “essential foundation” in the transition to a net-zero energy system. But they only project a doubling of nuclear to a measly 8% of total generation by 2050. Nuclear needs to be triple or quadruple that to have any chance of attaining NZE. The report also notes that failure to take timely decisions on nuclear power would “raise the costs of a net‐zero emissions pathway and add to the risk of not meeting their goal.” The IEA even chastised Spain for its decision to phase out its nuclear fleet by 2035. IEA failed to set ambitious goals for nuclear power to achieve net-zero emissions globally by 2050, … [+] especially small modular reactors, like NuScale’s, designed to back-up all the renewables they envision. Their goal of 8% nuclear needs to be 35%. NuScale Instead, IEA’s NZE scenario puts way too much faith in technologies that are uncertain, untested, or unreliable, and fails to reflect both the size and scope of the contribution nuclear technologies could make. It’s no surprise that China is planning so many nuclear plants. The IEA report notes that to reach the NZE goal by 2050, global investment in clean energy will have to triple by 2030 to around $4 trillion annually. They do not specify who would pay for this. Sama Bilbao y León, Director General of the World Nuclear Association, commented on the IEA report. “The IEA makes it clear that nuclear energy will be an essential component of a global net-zero emissions energy transition. Governments must now take action to ensure that nuclear energy can play a major role in the clean energy transition to which so many of them have now committed.” An important component of this will be extended operations of existing nuclear reactors, as “they are one of the most cost‐effective sources of low‐carbon electricity.” The report also recognizes the importance of small modular reactors and other advanced reactor designs. Nuclear energy is presently the world’s second largest source of clean electricity, the first in developed countries, one with a proven track record in decarbonizing generating mixes. The uncertainties surrounding other low carbon technologies, and the difficulty of changing human behavior, should push the IEA towards more ambitious targets for nuclear energy. The nuclear industry has a plan in which nuclear energy would provide at least 25% of the world’s electricity by 2050, requiring the deployment of 1000 gigawatts of new nuclear, at build rates that are no higher than those already achieved. The goal also requires keeping today’s reactors going as long as is safe – which is a long time given that the design life for present reactors was about 80 years, not 40 like many anti-nuclear activists and politicians keep parroting. But nuclear is also good at other things, like generating zero-carbon heat, thus addressing decarbonization far beyond electricity generation, something IEA doesn’t mention at all. Nuclear reactors already provide steam for district heating in places like Sweden, and produce fresh water through desalination. New reactors can provide heat and feedstocks for the chemical, steel and concrete industries, fuels for heavy transport (shipping and aviation) and can generate hydrogen directly. Instead, IEA hopes many of these can be addressed by carbon capture, most attempts of which have failed. The IEA future also relies too much on wind and solar without mentioning the need for back-up generation or energy storage with overall grid management on a scale far greater than has been demonstrated, either in terms of cost, reliability or practicality. The reliability issue is probably the worst. The most recent E3 Northwest Resource Adequacy study showed that wind in regions having a real winter can only be relied upon 7% of the time during really bad weather, when energy is most needed. Just ask Texas. In addition, an expansion of wind, solar and batteries to this degree will place an enormous strain on the supply of critical minerals that they need, especially lithium, cobalt, neodymium and even steel, something the IEA itself highlighted in a recent report which pointed out that nuclear is the low-carbon technology with the lowest mineral intensity and smallest land footprint. The IEA needs to take its own advice and recommend more nuclear builds faster than we’re planning. Or their decarbonization strategy will go up in smoke. If that happens, we’ll have to go with Plan B.