You have to hand it to the Guardian. The people who write articles for publication there are nothing if not optimistic and enthusiastic when it comes to pushing the renewable energy agenda. An upbeat headline on the Guardian website, about a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) caught my attention at the beginning of this month. “Renewable energy has ‘another record year of growth’ says IEA”i, which sounded very impressive, though it paled into insignificance compared to the sub-heading, which was to the effect that “Renewables will account for about 95% of growth in global power-generation capacity up to the end of 2026, finds energy agency”.

The article does a very good job of re-working and summarising the press releaseii accompanying the International Energy Agency’s “Renewables 2021” reportiii. I think this was probably the key paragraph cheer-leading the progress of renewable energy:

According to the IEA report, published on Wednesday, renewables will account for about 95% of the increase in global power-generation capacity from now to the end of 2026, with solar power alone providing about half of the increase.

It doesn’t take long to deflate the celebratory nature of the claim, however. First, as we all know, the capacity of renewables to generate energy is not the same thing as the amount of energy actually generated by renewables. According to the Sunmetrix websiteiv (which, as its name might suggest, concentrates on solar panel energy production):

One of the most confusing aspects of renewable energy is the difference between installed (nameplate) capacity and the actual output that is obtained from these systems….the capacity factor varies quite a bit for solar photovoltaic systems depending on the location. Generally, it is in the range of 10-25%. One of the key reasons for this low ratio is the nature of renewable power. After all, when it comes to solar, wind and hydro, we are at the mercy of the [sic] nature. If there is no wind at a given moment, a wind turbine will sit idle. If there is no rain or snow to fill the reservoirs, a hydroelectric plant cannot generate power. Compared to wind and hydro, solar energy has an additional limitation: there is absolutely no energy production during night time…

10-25% isn’t terribly impressive, and makes a nonsense of claims based around “power-generation capacity”. All the more so when compared with the competitors to renewables. According to SunMetrix, the equivalent figures for wind turbines are around 25% (still pretty measly); hydroelectric power stations are at 40% (better, but still far from great); coal fired power plants are at 70%; and nuclear power plants are at 89%. Combined cycle gas turbines, by the way, are rated by SunMetrix at a measly 38%. It sounds as though – on this measure at least – we should be cheer-leading for coal and nuclear. Whatever the rights and wrongs of renewable versus fossil fuel generation, perhaps there should be some sort of equivalent of trading standards laws, preventing the use of misleading statistics that refer to “power-generation capacity and compel the use of actual power generation instead.

The second flaw in the claim becomes readily apparent when one reads the executive summary to the IEA report:

We have revised up our forecast from a year earlier, as stronger policy support and ambitious climate targets announced for COP26 outweigh the current record commodity prices that have increased the costs of building new wind and solar PV installations.

In other words, there is a real problem with regard to claims that renewable energy generation is becoming cheaper. Record prices for commodities that are essential for renewable energy projects are a big problem, and a problem that is growing, given the pressure on resources as the world emerges (however erratically) from the downturn caused by the covid pandemic. This upward pressure on prices seems likely only to increase as China continues to seek to take control of the markets for such commodities.

Thus, as the IEA report acknowledges, the “building [of] new wind and solar PV installations” is increasingly dependent on “stronger policy support and ambitious climate targets”. Take away taxpayer subsidies and leave it to the market and the projected huge growth in renewable energy will melt away like snow in spring. This is arguably all the more so (contra the reasoning in the IEA Report) as the price of oil and gas have recovered strongly in the latter part of 2021, following a torrid 2020 thanks to the covid pandemic. As energy costs rise, will taxpayers and energy users really be happy about paying more and more subsidies for expensive and unreliable renewable energy? And, as the price of oil and gas rises, exploitation of those resources becomes financially attractive to fossil fuel companies once again.

If you’ll forgive the pun, there are also strong headwinds that will cause problems for the growth of renewable energy, as the IEA Report’s Executive Summary makes clear:

Rising commodity, energy and shipping prices have increased the cost of producing and transporting solar PV modules, wind turbines and biofuels worldwide. Since the beginning of 2020, prices for PV-grade polysilicon more than quadrupled, steel has increased by 50%, aluminium by 80%, copper by 60%, and freight fees have risen six-fold. Compared with commodity prices in 2019, we estimate that investment costs for utility-scale solar PV and onshore wind are 25% higher. In addition, restrictive trade measures have brought additional price increases to solar PV modules and wind turbines in key markets such as the United States, India and the European Union.

Finally, with the best will in the world, the IEA report is a projection of the future, not (by and large) a report on existing developments. It is a guess – admittedly, an informed guess – and we have all seen how wildly inaccurate expert predictions have proved to be in recent years. In short, the report is a non-story.

BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2021v

By contrast, the BP Statistical Review of World Energy provides us, year on year, with a detailed report of the state of play regarding the world’s energy mix. The 2021 report looks back to 2020, a year when energy demand was badly hit by the covid pandemic. To that extent, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that the 2020 figures relating to fossil fuel use may prove to be on the low side compared to the figures going forward, especially given what we have learned about the recent massive spike in demand for coal, gas, and to some extent oil in recent months. Unlike the IEA report, the BP figures are not conjecture. And this is what we learn at page 12:

Oil continues to hold the largest share of the energy mix (31.2%). Coal is the second largest fuel in 2020, accounting for 27.2% of total primary energy consumption, a slight increase from 27.1% in the previous year. The share of both natural gas and renewables rose to record highs of 24.7% and 5.7% respectively. Renewables has [sic] now overtaken nuclear which makes up only 4.3% of the energy mix. Hydro’s share of energy increased by 0.4 percentage points last year to 6.9%, the first increase since 2014.

In other words: yes, the share of renewables is growing, but it is extraordinary, to my mind at least, to reflect on the fact that after 25 COPs (which was how many there had been by 2020) and decades of propaganda and subsidies in favour of renewables, they still provided only 5.7% of the world’s energy mix last year, and given recent developments, that is a percentage that the 2022 report may even show to have fallen during 2021 as energy demand increased, and as the world turned once more to fossil fuels to fill the gap. Furthermore, we learn that:

Oil remains the dominant fuel in Africa, Europe and the Americas, while natural gas dominates in CIS and the Middle East, accounting for more than half of the energy mix in both regions. Coal is the dominant fuel in the Asia Pacific region. In 2020 coal’s share of primary energy fell to its lowest level in our data series in North America and Europe to 12% and 9%, respectively.

It’s no surprise to learn that coal’s share of primary energy is falling in North America and in Europe. Of course, in Asia (and indeed in much of the rest of the world, as we will see below), the picture is very different indeed.

At page 64 of the BP Report, we learn that:

Natural gas is the dominant fuel used for power generation in North America, CIS, the Middle East and Africa. More than half of the power in South and Central America is hydroelectricity, while in Asia, coal comprises 57% of the generation mix – a far higher share than any other region. In Europe, renewables (including biopower) are the largest source of power generation with 23.8% for the first time, overtaking nuclear on 21.6%. Generation in Europe is spread fairly evenly between renewables, nuclear, gas (19.6%) and hydro (16.9%).

It’s a pity that the report lumps biopower in with renewables, given that I suspect most thinking people do not regard biopower as renewable energy, in any meaningful sense of the word. Take biopower out of the renewables mix, and even in Europe, where the kitchen sink has been thrown at funding renewable power projects, the situation looks decidedly indifferent. What of the rest of the world?

At a global level, coal is the dominant fuel for power generation, however its share fell 1.3 percentage points to 35.1% in 2020, the lowest level in our data series. The share of renewables rose to record levels last year (11.7%), with the combined share of renewables and gas-fired power (35.1%) equalling coal for the first time.

Here, note, we are talking about power generation – I assume, in other words, the production of electricity, as opposed to total power use (which includes transport etc.). Hence the 11.7% figure for renewables, compared to the 5.7% figure quoted above.

Conclusion

I have no doubt that renewable energy production will continue to grow, and to grow substantially, especially as politicians fall over themselves to throw taxpayer subsidies at these projects. However, a growing world population, growing demand for energy, and a need for energy to be reliable and predictable (which renewable energy certainly hasn’t been in Europe in 2021) will make it difficult for renewable energy to do anything other than increase its share of total energy supply very slowly indeed.

Renewable energy may or may not supply “95% of the increase in global power-generation capacity from now to the end of 2026”, though my money would be on “not”. However, even if I’m wrong I would still be very surprised indeed if renewable energy makes up as much as 7.5% of total energy needs by the end of 2026. Guardian headlines and IEA reports might give some people a warm feeling, but in the real world, the situation isn’t as they would wish.

Endnotes

i https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/dec/01/renewable-energy-has-another-record-year-of-growth-says-iea

ii https://www.iea.org/news/renewable-electricity-growth-is-accelerating-faster-than-ever-worldwide-supporting-the-emergence-of-the-new-global-energy-economy

iii https://www.iea.org/reports/renewables-2021

iv https://sunmetrix.com/what-is-capacity-factor-and-how-does-solar-energy-compare/

v https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2021-full-report.pdf

17 Comments

  1. Excellent post Mark. Very helpful. I take issue with SunMetrix and “hydroelectric power stations are at 40% (better, but still far from great).” A 40% capacity factor would represent a run-of-river hydro system with no upstream storage. Most large hydropower plants have upstream reservoirs and capacity factors are typically about 90%.
    And what’s with this IEA outfit? They sound like cheerleaders for renewables. Glad you dug out some useful data from big bad oil.

    Like

  2. “… the capacity factor varies quite a bit for solar photovoltaic systems depending on the location. Generally, it is in the range of 10-25%.”

    Monthly and annual capacity factors can also vary considerably, especially in “one of the darkest countries in the world” as the late Prof Sir David MacKay described the UK.

    Here, solar’s annual capacity factor is approx 11%, but drops to <3% for our month of greatest electricity demand.

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  3. “And what’s with this IEA outfit?” asks potentilla. Good question. Their website can be found here:

    https://www.iea.org/

    The site opens with a big sentence front and central: “Shaping a secure and sustainable energy future for all.” That sounds like something we can all sign up to (energy security, after all, is something we bang on about endlessly). ANd indeed, it’s about page:

    https://www.iea.org/about

    says that of its missions: “The IEA is committed to shaping a secure and sustainable energy future for all”. HOw did it come to exist?

    “The IEA was born with the 1973-1974 oil crisis, when industrialised countries found they were not adequately equipped to deal with the oil embargo imposed by major producers that pushed prices to historically high levels. ”

    I think this paragraph sums it up:

    “The modernization of the IEA was structured under three pillars: strengthening and broadening the IEA’s commitment to energy security beyond oil, to natural gas and electricity; deepening the IEA’s engagement with major emerging economies; and providing a greater focus on clean energy technology, including energy efficiency.”

    It’s unfortunate, because “International Energy Agency” sounds like a thoroughly independent, authoritative and objective organisation whose statistics can be trusted implicitly by everybody interested in the energy debate. However, it is very pro-renewables (or so it seems to me) and its executive director, Fatih BIrol is always good for a quote about climate change and in favour of renewables – hence, no doubt, his comments are regularly quoted at the Guardian and the BBC.

    According to the IEA website, he “has served as Executive Director of the International Energy Agency since 2015. Under his leadership, the IEA has moved to the forefront of global efforts to reach international climate goals while ensuring that the social and economic impacts of clean energy transitions are at the heart of policy-making and energy security is safeguarded.”

    All above board and well-meaning, no doubt. But I always take information from them with a large pinch of salt.

    Like

  4. Joe Public, yes the gaping hole in the benefits of solar power in the UK is that when energy need is at its greatest (winter), that is precisely when solar generates next to no power.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “Combined cycle gas turbines, by the way, are rated by SunMetrix at a measly 38%.”

    National Grid’s latest (Jan 2021) generic annual Capacity / Load factors for its various generation sources is listed on page 9 here:

    https://www.nationalgrideso.com/document/186166/download

    For fossil fuels however, Nat Grid’s list is misleading. And the reason it’s misleading may help explain why IEA’s figure for CCGT may be underestimated.

    In the UK, renewables have priority access to market, so gas/coal generation is only used when our overcapacity of renewables underperform and so are unable to meet demand. (Demand for both electricity AND/OR stabilisation measures!)

    Consequently, its figure of 51% annual capacity/load factor for CCGT is based upon a false equivalence.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Not so long ago I considered the IEA an “independent, authoritative and objective organisation” Mark. I think they were. When did that change? That I don’t know.

    However, the day before Climategate, 16th Nov 2009, Roger Pielke Jnr posted Does this Math Add Up? on his then blog. (Congrats to RP that the URL still works, which cannot be said for many.) The answer being no. Fatih Birol was the culprit – then the “chief economist” at the IEA. What I’m not sure about is whether they would even discuss the tradeoffs for those without electricity in the world these days. Worth a look.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Alan,

    Once again you leave me blushing. Can’t we just leave it at declaring that I have an honorary doctorate from Cliscep, and leave it at that?

    Actually, not having a doctorate in my line of work wasn’t nearly as problematic as was failing to become a chartered engineer. That’s where my indifference to accolades really did have an impact.

    Like

  8. Faith Birol is in my Catastrophe Narrative archive. (There’s a clickable index of quotees at the end of the file):

    Click to access Catastrophe-Narrative-Archive.pdf

    From 2012: “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius (by 2050), which would have devastating consequences for the planet… …We have 5 years to change the energy system, or have it changed.”

    Like

  9. “Renewables will account for about 95% of growth in global power-generation capacity up to the end of 2026, finds energy agency”.

    Another aspect of renewables making up such a large percentage of new growth is that fossil fueled generating capacity is already built. The only growth is replacing old equipment and shifting from coal plants to gas plants, at least for developed countries. I don’t think The Guardian or IEA has that good of an understanding about what the developing world is going to do.

    Like

  10. And speaking of the IEA:

    “Energy watchdog urged to give free access to government data
    Open letter calls on IEA to help researchers by removing paywalls from global energy datasets”

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/dec/10/academics-urge-iea-to-give-free-access-to-national-energy-data

    “The International Energy Agency is facing calls to make the national energy data it collects from governments publicly available.

    This would aid independent research, which in turn could help to accelerate the global transition to low-carbon energy.

    More than 30 international academics have written to the global energy watchdog to call for it to drop its paywalls for national energy datasets, which are collected using public funds, to avoid making climate action “more costly and less effective”.

    The IEA publishes a number of influential reports on global energy systems, based in large part on the national energy data provided by the governments that it counts among its members. However, much of the data that underpins these reports is inaccessible to independent researchers.

    The academics said that putting datasets behind paywalls makes it more difficult for independent energy system analysts, and the interested public, to investigate and better understand the path to net zero.

    Instead, the “high-quality data” required to create effective and low-cost pathways to net zero societies should be available under suitable open licences, according to the academics.

    “High-quality datasets already exist: they are published by the IEA but remain behind paywalls. And despite the IEA being a publicly funded institution, researchers and other interested third parties have to normally pay and consent to non‐disclosure to access the IEA data,” said the open letter to the IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol.

    “Ultimately, a lack of data availability will lead to net zero transition pathways that are both more costly and less effective than they should have been,” the letter added.”

    Interesting to see it described as a “global energy watchdog” – whatever that means.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This will be part of that “95%”, no doubt:

    “Brafferton solar farm to power 8,000 homes plan approved”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-59634222

    Plans for a £20m solar farm which it is claimed will produce enough energy to power 8,000 homes have been approved.

    Durham County Council was told Lightrock Power’s farm, near Brafferton and Newton Aycliffe, would save 12,600 tonnes of CO2 a year.

    The farm would be removed after 40 years, the council’s planning committee was told.

    Plans for a similar farm at Sheraton village, near Hartlepool, were rejected amid fears it would harm the landscape.

    Both plans had been recommended for approval by the council’s planning department, although both were objected to by the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) which opposed the loss of agricultural land.”

    Enough energy to power 8,000 homes, eh? How is that calculated? It won’t be powering much of anything at this time of year. Curiously, its own PR actually claimed it “aims to harvest enough renewable energy to power approximately 9,900 homes”.

    Click to access Whinfield+Board+1+-+Welcome.pdf

    Like

  12. “Russia is orchestrating Europe’s gas crisis, says energy agency boss
    Fatih Birol says low gas flows to continent coincide with escalating rift over Ukraine”

    https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/jan/12/russia-europe-gas-crisis-international-energy-agency-boss

    “The head of the International Energy Agency has accused Russia of orchestrating Europe’s deepening energy crisis at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions by withholding up to a third of its gas exports.

    Fatih Birol, the executive director of the IEA, directly blamed Russia’s behaviour for the record-high energy market prices in Europe this winter that threaten to upend large parts of the European economy and plunge millions into a cost of living crisis.

    He said the historic low gas storage levels across Europe were largely due to Russia’s state-owned gas company, Gazprom, which has sent about 25% less gas than usual to Europe over recent months despite a surge in demand after 2020’s economic slump.”

    There seems to be no recognition that it is over-reliance on unreliable renewable energy, combined with a refusal to use its own gas reserves, that is driving the west into the arms of Russia and that this is what is allowing Putin (if indeed he is doing) to exploit the situation. If the western world had a credible energy policy, this problem would not have occurred.

    Like

  13. “Europe’s power price spike caused by surging demand, extreme weather: Report
    International Energy Agency says coal’s comeback in Europe ‘is only temporary.’”

    https://www.politico.eu/article/iea-sky-high-electricity-prices-driven-by-surging-demand-and-more-extreme-weather-events/

    “Europe’s sky-high power prices are the result of a dramatic surge in electricity demand and more extreme weather, according a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

    Power demand returned to pre-pandemic levels last year, after a decline in 2020, the organization noted in its Electricity Market Report released Friday. The rise can be attributed in part to renewed economic activity and to extreme weather, it said, noting that April 2021 was the coldest since 2003.

    The higher prices resulting from surging demand caused many European countries to return to coal, leading to an 11 percent increase in coal-fired power generation on the Continent in 2021 after years of decline, the report noted.

    The IEA said coal’s comeback in Europe “is only temporary,” even if use of the fossil fuel is projected to stay steady in 2022. Over the longer term, lower gas prices and expanded renewable energy capacity — as well as high carbon trading prices — are expected to lead to a decline in coal use.”

    IEA Electricity Market Report here:

    Click to access ElectricityMarketReport_January2022.pdf

    Like

  14. Here we go again:

    “Gate Burton solar farm: Firm seeks views to shape major project”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-60346470

    “Developers behind plans for a giant solar farm in Lincolnshire have encouraged people to take part in the consultation process.

    Low Carbon Limited wants to create a new solar and energy storage park near Gate Burton, south of Gainsborough.

    The firm said the 500MW farm had the potential to produce enough clean energy to supply 160,000 homes…”.

    To supply 160,000 homes, eh? For how much of the time? How predictably? How reliably? And in winter?

    By the way:

    “Due to the size of the project’s predicted generating capacity, the proposed site near Gate Burton is classified as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP).

    NSIPs are major building projects managed by the government’s Planning Inspectorate, rather than local planning officials.”

    This is a piece of legislation that is little-known, I suspect, and could probably do with more discussion and awareness.

    Like

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