November 14, 2017 Read More →

Rising Role of Renewables and Gas Setting the Pace for Rapid Change in Global Energy Markets

New York Times:

LONDON — From the rise of renewable power to the transformation of the United States into a heavyweight producer of oil and gas, the global energy market, normally slow to evolve, is going through major upheaval.

That is the assessment of Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, the organization based in Paris that is publishing its annual World Energy Outlook on Tuesday.

The report does not make for easy bedtime reading: It is 763 pages long and stuffed with data-laden charts and tables.

Still, the document tries to project current trends as far out as 2040, and sees an industry at the nexus of various powerful trends.

The United States, for instance, has shifted from being an energy-dependent importer to a new role as one of the world’s biggest producers of oil and gas, the report says. But concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions have clouded the future of fossil fuels. That has encouraged the development of alternatives like solar and wind power, which increasingly compete with traditional energy sources.

Here are some of the most important themes to be found in the report.

‘Energy Renaissance’

Energy production in the United States will continue to shake up the global oil and natural gas markets, and benefit the country’s economy.

By the 2030s, largely because of production from shale-rock formations, the United States is expected to produce more than 30 million barrels of oil and gas a day, the report says. That is 50 percent more than any other country has ever produced in a single year.

That is a sharp shift from the country’s position just a decade ago, when it was a major importer of oil.

The shale industry has gone through a “trial by fire” in recent years, the report says, referring to a sharp falloff in the price of oil from more than $100 a barrel to as low as around $30 a barrel. It is now above $60 a barrel.

That has transformed the shale sector, and it is “leaner and hungrier” than it was before the price crash, the report says. As a result, it is better able to quickly react to any sign of higher prices. That is crucial, as the OPEC oil cartel tries to manage its production levels to bolster prices.

The Coming Gas Shake-Up

Changes in how gas is transported and traded are having a major effect, on the energy industry and the environment.

As the United States increases its gas production — it is now on track to surpass traditional giants like Qatar and Russia and become the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, or L.N.G. — it is also exporting what the report calls a disruptive “mind-set about how gas markets should operate.”

Gas has historically been sold through long-term contracts pegged to oil prices. That has particularly been the case in Asia, the key market for L.N.G., which is expected to eventually dominate the international gas trade.

But as the United States becomes a bigger force in gas markets, it is also helping to break down the existing system. Over time, the report forecasts that gas will be traded more widely and freely, potentially pushing down prices and making it more attractive to developing countries like India and China.

Greater use of gas could bring major environmental benefits. When burned, it produces less of the carbon emissions associated with climate change than coal, and lower levels of other pollutants. Mr. Birol said, for instance, said that the decision by power plants in United States to switch from burning coal to gas was largely responsible for holding global emissions roughly steady in recent years (although they appear poised to rise this year).

There is still work to be done, the report says. The gas industry needs to address emissions of methane that undermine that type of fuel’s environmental claims. “Natural gas is a viable exit ramp off of fossil fuels only if it cleans up its methane pollution, which now seriously undercuts its claimed climate advantages,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, an American environmental group.

Gains for Renewables

One factor that may hamper the growth of gas: rapidly falling costs of renewable sources of energy like wind and solar installations.

The average cost of electricity generated over the life of a solar power plant declined by a stunning 70 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to the agency’s report. Wind costs declined by 25 percent in that period.

The report forecasts that these technologies will only become less expensive over the next 25 years, squeezing fossil fuels, which are widely used to generate electric power.

Already, power from new wind installations in India and China is cheaper than new gas-fired power plants. A similar situation is developing with solar power, the report says.

Still, fossil fuels will not vanish anytime soon. It is much more difficult to reduce the use of coal, gas and oil in sectors like transportation and industry than it is in power generation, and the share of fossil fuels used to meet overall energy demand will be 75 percent in 2040, compared with 81 percent last year, according to the agency’s main scenario.

And, the report adds, greenhouse gas levels still appear to be climbing above the threshold required to meet international goals like those established in the 2015 Paris climate accords.

China’s Outsize Role

Because of China’s scale as a consumer of energy, the choices that the country makes will be felt globally, the report says.

China could overtake the United States as the world’s largest consumer of oil as soon as 2030. Of all the new solar and wind power installations to be added through 2040, a third could be in China. In that period, the country could also end up with 320 million electric vehicles, more than a third of the global total.

“China’s choices,” the report says, “will play a huge role in determining global trends, and could spark a faster clean energy transition.”

More: “America’s ‘Renaissance’ to Gains for Renewables: Global Energy Trends

 

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