The world will fall far short of its sustainability goals unless rapid and widespread changes across all parts of the energy system are enacted urgently, according to the International Energy Agency.

These stark observations from the 'World Energy Outlook 2019' report emulated that of the infamous IPCC report of 2018 that stated: “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

The IEA has set out three scenarios,

  1. Current Policies Scenario: A business as usual approach;
  2. Stated Policies Scenario: An approach that successfully follows current emissions reduction targets and policy intentions;
  3. Sustainable Development Scenario: What needs to be done differently and major changes required for the world to hold the rise in global temperatures to well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.

It should be noted that even the Stated Policies Scenario would result in a world in 2040 "where hundreds of millions of people still go without access to electricity, where pollution-related premature deaths remain around today’s elevated levels, and where CO2 emissions would lock in severe impacts from climate change", according to the report.

Energy efficiency improvements would be the most effective action right now to bring the world towards the more desirable Sustainable Development Scenario, claimed the IEA, and yet, efficiency efforts are already slowing down. This target would also require solutions using multiple fuels and technologies.

“Many technologies and fuels have a part to play across all sectors of the economy. For this to happen, we need strong leadership from policymakers, as governments hold the clearest responsibility to act and have the greatest scope to shape the future," said Dr Fatih Birol, IEA executive director.

"The world urgently needs to put a laser-like focus on bringing down global emissions. This calls for a grand coalition encompassing governments, investors, companies and everyone else who is committed to tackling climate change."

Solar remains integral to energy future

For the PV industry, the key takeaway is that electricity is one of the few energy sources expected to see rising consumption over the next two decades in the Sustainable Development Scenario. Electricity consumption would overtake that of oil by 2040 and, crucially, wind and solar PV would provide almost all the increase in electricity generation.

In the Stated Policies scenario, solar also wins out, as energy demand would rise by 1% each year up to 2040 and low-carbon sources, led by PV, would account for more than half of this growth. Solar PV would become the single largest source of installed generation capacity worldwide by 2040, overtaking coal capacity in the early-2030s.

Stated Policies Scenario by teechnology. Credit: IEA

Stated Policies Scenario by teechnology. Credit: IEA

The report stated: "Year-on-year capacity additions flattened out in 2018 at just below 100GW, although the indications are that 2019 is seeing a resumption of strong growth [more than 110GW according to preliminary data]. A renewed acceleration in annual solar PV deployment, alongside enhanced efforts to ensure smooth integration of the resulting solar generation into power systems, is essential to reach climate targets and other sustainable development goals."

The IEA also warned that with the addition of renewable energy, the flexibility of power systems will need to increase rapidly in major markets by 2040 due to variability in power demand. Africa, the special focus of this year’s report, was also highlighted as a region with the world’s greatest solar resources, but with just 5GW installed. Thus, there is great potential with the millions of Africans without access to power or quality grid access today. This came with an eye-opening statistic: more than half a billion people are set to be added to Africa’s urban population by 2040. 

With the rising importance of energy storage applications, the IEA has also examined the possibility that battery costs could decline even faster, by an extra 40% by 2040, creating what was described as a “compelling economic and environmental proposition”.

Eyes to the top

The ending of the report used repetition to drive home that the greatest responsibility in making the necessary energy system changes - beyond all other stakeholders - lies with the world's governments. The IEA stated:

"Meeting rising demand for energy services, including universal access, while cutting emissions is a formidable task: all can help, but governments must take the lead. Initiatives from individuals, civil society, companies and investors can make a major difference, but the greatest capacity to shape our energy destiny lies with governments. It is governments that set the conditions that determine energy innovation and investment. It is governments to whom the world looks for clear signals and unambiguous direction about the road ahead."

The report also offered the sobering statistic that it would take 200 years at an annual deployment rate of 100GW to reach the scale of 2018 global electricity demand. Yet, electricity demand is not standing still, but increasing rapidly. Deployment at today’s scale is not enough to usher in a “solar century”, said the IEA, but it did note that the rapid growth trajectory patterns required for solar to become the central pillar of a rapid decarbonisation are still "undoubtedly possible".

The report introduction can be found here.

Tags: iea, solar and wind, grid integration, climate change

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