World energy generation: the real picture

There's plenty of positive news on the growth of low carbon energy - plummeting costs for wind, solar and batteries; the emergence of subsidy-free renewables; and the world's biggest (so far) solar power project on the way.

Yet there is also a resumption of growth in global carbon emissions after a three-year hiatus, as well as a new rise in greenhouse gas emissions as measured within Europe's Emissions Trading Scheme - the first increases for seven years.

How can both be true - lots of new low carbon technology and rising carbon emissions? The explanation is quite simple, but often hidden amongst the spectacular and perhaps dazzling growth of electricity generated from renewable sources in all their various forms - with concomitant action on power distribution reforms such as electricity storage and smarter power distribution. The continuing emissions problem is the relative failure of efforts to control, and then to curb, global energy demand.

But not everywhere. Energy demand in many parts of Europe and North America has peaked and started to fall in recent years, due to real progress made in energy efficiency.

The picture in Asia is very different and, as the International Energy Agency's (IEA's) latest report says, the growth during 2017 of global energy demand was concentrated in Asia, with China and India together accounting for more than 40% of the increase. And the most significant rises in fossil fuel use also took place in Asia, says the IEA. Nearly a third of the global rise in gas use was in China alone, while the (small) increase in the global use of coal was mainly due to demand in Asia.

Fossil fuels met over 70% of the global growth in energy demand during 2017, with natural gas being the most significant fuel, adds the IEA. This means that the overall share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix remained at 81% last year - a level that has remained stable for more than three decades. That's despite sturdy growth in renewables around the world. Renewables were the biggest success story in 2017, providing a quarter of the overall demand growth and showing the highest growth rate. Wind power was the biggest contributor. And it is this dynamic and highly visible growth - much of it being developed in Europe and North America - that can mask the bigger picture of a world still dominated by fossil fuels, and where energy demand continues to rise.

However, far from simple being greedy for fossil fuels, Asia is also playing a big part in the growth of renewables. Last year's renewables charge was led by the US and China, which together contributed half of the total increase in renewables-based electricity generation. These leaders were followed by the EU (8%), Japan and India (with 6% each). China overtook the US as the largest user of (non-hydro) renewables during the year, says the IEA.

So, while Asia is the continent of energy demand growth and is still increasing its use of fossil fuels, led by China it is also developing renewable technologies at a healthy pace.

We can certainly cheer the rise of renewables and the start of a transition towards low carbon energy systems around the world but, with fossil fuels continuing to dominate the global energy picture and carbon emissions on the rise again, cutting energy demand should be the priority.

Extract from page 2 of the May 2018 edition of Energy World