Tilak Doshi Contributor
I analyze energy economics and related public policy issues.
Mr. Doshi has a fascinating article over at Forbes on the transformation of the IEA from a useful energy advisory body to an ideologically captured one.
In May 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) – the West’s energy advisory body established in the wake of the 1973 oil price shock — issued an astonishing report entitled “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector.” It espoused an end to all new investments in oil and gas (let alone coal) from 2021. The IEA “road-map” was, as expected, met with strong support from “climate emergency” alarmists. For instance, Climate Action 100+, a group of investors with $68 trillion in assets under management, hailed the report as a “watershed moment” and reiterated the IEA’s call for an immediate end to new investment in fossil fuels. Among industry practitioners, however, it led to widespread ridicule. The Saudi oil minister, for instance, called the report a sequel to “La La Land”.
It is no surprise that assessments of the report are polarized between those within the climate industrial complex and those outside. We now have a forensic analysis of the IEA report conducted by the Energy Policy Research Foundation published last week. It was funded by the RealClearFoundation. The analysis was edited by Rupert Darwall, author of two insightful books on the climate debate. The analysis now allows an exposé of the assumptions and conclusions contained in the IEA report.
The EPRF Exposes IEA’s Magical Thinking
The best of all possible worlds promised by IEA in its “net zero by 2050” vision (a cleaner energy system with the net addition of millions of high-paying jobs) will come about if policy makers put an immediate end to investments to all new fossil fuels developments projects, ban internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035 and stop all carbon emissions in the power generation sector by 2040.
Perhaps the most fundamental assumption of the IEA’s net zero roadmap is that of the plunging costs of wind, solar and battery technologies rapidly displacing demand for fossil fuels which currently account for 82% of the world’s primary energy supply according to BP’s latest annual statistical bulletin. (Nuclear power hardly rates a mention.) This assumption undergirds the entire edifice of IEA’s claims regarding the “net zero” future. Take away the supposed cheap and effective “renewable energy” offered by the wind, solar and battery technologies, and all of IEA’s policy advocacy – in parallel with Europe’s green fantasies – collapses into the ash-heap of history.
The IEA report asserts that “Ever-cheaper renewable energy technologies give electricity the edge in the race to zero.” In its projections to 2050, the further adoption of solar panels and wind turbines increases their share of electricity generation from 10% in 2021 to 69% in 2050. To achieve large-scale, low-carbon electrification around the world, continued cost reductions are needed in solar PV and offshore wind. Solar PV capital costs drop by 57%–63% by 2050, and offshore wind by 60%–68%.
EPRF’s analysis shows that the IEA’s optimistic expectations on wind and solar displacing fossil fuels are illusory. Cost declines in solar PV modules were attributable to Chinese manufacturing practices with vast economies of scale, cheap coal-based power supplies, and “mercantilist” support from the Chinese central and local governments which practiced predatory pricing in export markets.
The IEA’s net zero report fails to account for additional high-voltage transmission lines to connect renewable power generators to distant demand centers and large increases in intermittent renewable power sources. Given the prohibitive costs of grid-scale battery storage, intermittent weather-dependent power supplied by wind and solar technologies continue to suffer from inadequate storage capacity. This imposes costs of grid vulnerability, as system operators need to continually balance intermittency with dispatchable power from coal and natural gas-based power generators. The EPRF study confirms the relationship between intermittency and power system integration costs. Data from Eurostat shows a trend of rising electricity prices for households in 28 European countries with the share of intermittent renewables in power generation.
The EPRF study also points out that the world will need to mine enormous amounts of critical minerals used for solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and grid networks. The study states that “the incremental need for critical minerals, particularly lithium, graphite, cobalt, and nickel, will be at least 1,800% by 2040, even in a less aspirational [IEA] scenario.” Even the IEA conceded in its World Energy Outlook that although 80% of demand for copper in its less ambitious net zero scenarios might be covered by announced production plans, “meeting the additional demand could be very challenging.”
The IEA’s “magical thinking” on a “net zero” future is illustrated by its absurdly optimistic forecasts of new innovations and technologies that are yet unproven to be commercially viable. According to its flagship Energy Technology Perspectives, “getting to net zero is not possible without more innovation”. In the IEA’s net zero future, about 50% of all emissions reductions in 2050 come from technologies that are at prototype or demonstration stages today. Out of a database of over 500 individual clean energy technologies at various stages of ‘Technology Readiness Levels’, only 29 technologies (less than 6%) have achieved some commercial competitiveness.
The IEA’s rosy forecasts for wind and solar took another beating last week when Siemens Energy share prices tumbled after it announced that its profits would suffer a large hit as the result of failures in many of its installed wind turbines. Energy economist Professor Gordon Hughes pointed out that this will inevitably mean that wind power is going to become more expensive still. In another recent development, Sweden’s new conservative government adopted a new energy target last week citing the “instability” of solar and wind power generation. It gave “the green light to push forward with plans to build new nuclear plants in a country that voted 40 years ago to phase out atomic power.”
In April, P. Gosselin referred to a “catastrophic report” in Germany where a “whopping 88% of those surveyed see move to green energies as unachievable!” Germany is the poster child of the net zero-focused Energiewende (energy transition) and most citizens were enthusiastic supporters of wind and solar technologies. As Gosselin reminds us, “those days are over”. The massive costs and technical limitations of intermittent, weather-dependent renewable energy have become increasingly apparent in recent years. Industry leaders have warned over the past two years of an exodus of the manufacturing sector to countries such as China and the US due to expected electricity shortages and spiraling energy prices.
The IEA Is Now An Advocacy Organization
It is not possible to do full justice to the breadth of the analytical critique contained in EPRF’s report in the space of this column. A short list of key IEA’s assumptions that cannot stand the test of the EPRF’s forensic analysis would include the following. The IEA’s scenarios assume that all countries in the world cooperate towards a net zero future. This even though a wide range of countries have no intentions to compromise their economic growth at the altar of green ambitions. This contrasts with Western governments which all seem willing to commit to net zero targets despite the adverse impacts on their citizens welfare. China, India, Russia, Vietnam and Indonesia are just some of the larger countries of the Eurasian continent which, despite stated targets for renewable energy, are expanding their coal consumption, along with oil and gas, to meet surging energy demand as pointed out by David Blackmon.
The IEA sets great store by expected improvements in energy efficiency. According to the IEA, the historical average rate of annual energy-intensity improvements (that is, the reduction in the use of energy per dollar of GDP produced) must nearly triple throughout the next decade. Yet another IEA assumption that seems patently improbable is that the share of all hydrocarbons (oil, gas, coal) in global primary supply decreases from about four-fifths in 2021 to less than one-fifth in 2050.
Other unrealistic assumptions include decreasing oil and gas prices through the forecast period despite falling production, and high CO2 prices for all regions including the poorest developing countries. The list goes on, but the reader must have already guessed at the IEA’s dubious modelling based on such assumptions. In its executive summary, the EPRF study states that “the IEA has made many questionable assumptions and milestones for ‘Net Zero Emissions’ about government policies, energy and carbon prices, behavioral changes, economic growth, and technology maturity.”
Energy economists might be surprised by the IEA’s reliance on such questionable assumptions and achievement milestones. However, once it is recognized that the IEA has ceased to be an authoritative source of analytical studies and become an advocacy group to support the Green movement, it all falls into place.
The IEA’s original mandate was the assurance of required energy supplies at reasonable cost. The subversion of this mandate is put forward succinctly by Mr. Darwall in his foreword to the report: “The IEA could have chosen to remain faithful to its original mandate, but as the Energy Policy Research Foundation report shows, in seeking to become a cheerleader for net zero,