Posted by Mark Halper

IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven has warned in the past that fossil fuels are keeping the world is on a disastrous warming trend.

The International Energy Agency released its annual World Energy Outlook yesterday, and you could sum up its power generation recommendation with a simple paraphrase: Keep the fossil fuels in the ground.

Or, to take, some liberty with IEA’s words – the planet should transition to clean non-fossil sources like safe alternative nuclear technologies, and, of course “renewables” such as wind and solar.

Paris-based IEA said the world is not doing enough to change energy practices and that it therefore risks causing a 2-degree C average rise in the earth’s surface temperature – an increase that many climate scientists say would be catostrophic.

“Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path,” the IEA says in the report’s executive summary.

A major culprit is the continued burning of fossil fuels, especially now that cheap natural gas is abundant in the U.S. and is prompting that country to export coal to other countries. The U.S. will out produce Saudi Arabia in oil by 2020 and will become a net oil exporter by 2035, the IEA predicts.

NOTHING FOSSILIZED ABOUT THE SUBSIDIES

Fossil fuel subsidies also played a major role in the continued supremacy of carbon intensive power, as they soared almost 30 percent in 2011, to $523 billion, the IEA reported.

IEA is a 28-country organisation that is part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that was founded in response to the 1973-74 oil crisis. It has been addressing issues of energy and sustainability since then.

This year’s annual Energy Outlook came with a prescription:

“No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal,” IEA cautioned. “Almost two-thirds of these carbon reserves are related to coal, 22 percent to oil and 15 percent to gas. Geographically, two-thirds are held by North America, the Middle East, China and Russia.”

The IEA executive summary made no mention of “alternative nuclear” technologies that could help mitigate global warming consequences. Those technologies include thorium fuel as well as reactors that use designs like molten salt, pebble bed and fast neutrons that offer a safer and potentially less expensive option to conventional uranium-based nuclear reactors.

NUCLEAR DECLINING, BUT

Thus, the IEA pointed out that nuclear power’s share of global power generation will decline, even though the planet will generate more nuclear power as total energy demand increases. IEA said that last year’s Fukushima nuclear accident is causing a nuclear retreat as some countries like Germany back off. Again, the report does not take into account the prospects for alternative nuclear.

Coal will continue to play a dominant role, and renewables use will rise dramatically, according to IEA.

The executive summary notes: “The world’s demand for electricity grows almost twice as fast as its total energy consumption, and the challenge to meet this demand is heightened by the investment needed to replace ageing power sector infrastructure. Of the new generation capacity that is built to 2035, around one-third is needed to replace plants that are retired. Half of all new capacity is based on renewable sources of energy, although coal remains the leading global fuel for power generation.”

Renewables will become the second largest power source by 2015, and will account for about a third of energy output by 2035, according to the IEA.

ALL EYES ON CHINA, INDIA

Exactly how strong coal’s role will be will depend on policies in countries like China and India among others.

“Whether coal demand carries on rising strongly or changes course will depend on the strength of policy measures that favour lower-emissions energy sources, the deployment of more efficient coal-burning technologies and, especially important in the longer term, CCS (carbon capture and storage). The policy decisions carrying the most weight for the global coal balance will be taken in Beijing and New Delhi – China and India account for almost three-quarters of projected non-OECD coal demand growth (OECD coal use declines).”

The IEA outlook strongly recommends the adoption of CCS. (It’s Interesting to note that the CCS and renewables industries, both of which get plenty of attention in the IEA report, teamed with nuclear in the UK last week to urge the government to write low carbon measures into its pending energy bill).

Other key points from the IEA outlook:

  • Efficiency efforts have been abysmal. The IEA says industry could slash global energy demand in half by 2035 by taking simple efficiency measures. “Four-fifths of the potential in the buildings sector and more than half in industry still remains untapped,” IEA claims.
  • Nearly 1.3 billion people remain without access to electricity and 2.6 billion do not have access to clean cooking facilities.
  • Energy production’s use of water will grow at twice the rate of energy demand.  “Water is essential to energy production: in power generation; in the extraction, transport and processing of oil, gas and coal; and, increasingly, in irrigation for crops used to produce biofuels,” IEA says.

Alternative nuclear could help in all these areas. IEA’s reference to industrial efficiencies makes me think, for example, of how small, safe reactors could serve as a clean and efficient source of industrial process heat. Here’s hoping that next year’s IEA summary looks in the direction of alternative nuclear.

Photo from IEA via Flickr

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