Continued fossil fuel dominance poses political, environmental risks

The International Energy Agency, which monitors global energy markets and trends on behalf of the industrial countries, issued its first Clean Energy Progress Report Wednesday. Judging from press reports, it appears to have been a sobering, glass-half-empty look at world energy trends, with these takeaway numbers:

– 47% of global electricity growth over the past decade was met with coal.

– During the same decade, global renewable electricity generation grew by 2.7% annually, while global electricity demand expanded by 3% (i.e., renewables are falling behind).

According to Globe-Net, Ambassador Richard Jones, the IEA’s Deputy Executive Director, said the world’s dependence on fossil fuels is posing short-term risks to political stability and economic activity and is threatening environmental sustainability: "Despite countries’ best efforts, the world is coming ever closer to missing targets that we believe are essential for meeting the goal agreed in Cancun to limit the growth in global average temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius."

How can this be, you might ask. Is electricity generation from renewable energy sources like solar power and wind energy really growing so slowly? I’m happy to report that the answer is: No!

The fact is that during the same decade, according to the report, global wind power grew from 17,000 megawatts (MW) to 194,000 MW, for an annual growth rate of 27.6%, expanding roughly 9 times as fast as global electricity demand.

What accounts for the apparent disparity? Renewable electricity started in 2000 with a huge installed global base of hydropower (on the order of 750,000 MW), and very small quantities of wind turbines and solar energy, so wind’s dramatic growth over the decade resulted in only a modest increase in overall renewable generation. Notes the report, "While 19.5% of global electricity in 1990 was produced from renewable sources, this share fell to 18.5% in 2008. This decrease is mainly the result of slow growth of the main renewable source, hydroelectric power, in OECD countries." If wind energy is able to achieve anything like its record during the past decade (let’s say, 15% growth per year through 2020), the story will look quite different in 2020.

Let me be very clear: wind’s much sharper growth rate does not invalidate the basic conclusion of the IEA report, which is that more aggressive policies are needed to reduce fossil fuel subsidies and to provide "transparent, predictable and adaptive incentives for cleaner energy options." But the "takeaway numbers" noted above will be cited by dirty-energy proponents as proof that energy sources like wind power will never amount to anything. Nothing could be further from the truth.

By Tom Gray,