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Peter Foster: The IEA’s solar spin cycle

Peter Foster, Financial Post

Sorry folks, the world will still be overwhelmingly fossil-fuelled in 2030

Every year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) produces a World Energy Outlook (WEO) that tries to obscure the fact that the great green transition isn’t happening. Every year it tries to spin a bright future for wind and solar by using upbeat language, dodgy statistics, and fantasy scenarios. And every year the mainstream media swallows it.

This year’s outlook, released last week, has obviously been complicated by the COVID lockdowns, which have sharply curtailed energy demand and clouded the immediate outlook. But that hasn’t stopped the IEA’s spinning.

The WEO peddles the line that since demand for fossil fuels is down more than demand for wind and solar, this might mean that wind and solar are gaining market ground. According to the report: “Our assessment is that global energy demand is set to drop by five per cent in 2020, energy-related CO2 emissions by seven per cent, and energy investment by 18 per cent. The impacts vary by fuel. The estimated falls of eight per cent in oil demand and seven per cent in coal use stand in sharp contrast to a slight rise in the contribution of renewables.” However, the reason fossil fuel demand is down more than demand for wind and solar is that it is based on markets, while wind and solar use is dictated by government mandates and taxpayer subsidies.

Still, let’s not be too picky. Did you know that, under current policies, “Global solar PV (photovoltaic) capacity has increased almost 20-fold over the last decade and is set to triple over the coming decade”? According to Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, “I see solar becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets … Based on today’s policy settings, it’s on track to set new records for deployment every year after 2022.” Sounds impressive!

The IEA party line was dutifully regurgitated by the mainstream media. One of Bloomberg’s four key “takeaways” from the report was “coal is dying, long live solar.” Even more dramatically, Bloomberg parroted that “renewables will push coal off the grid, taking 80 per cent of demand growth to 2030.” According to Global News, “the IEA forecast projects rapid growth for renewables over the next decade with solar power being the main driver of that growth.” Even the Wall Street Journal got with the IEA spin cycle, claiming: “Coronavirus pandemic speeds shift to cleaner energy.”

None of these climate crusaders had apparently read the report or asked for details. Renewables are indeed projected to increase from 10 per cent to 15 per cent of “primary energy demand” — that is, demand for all raw sources such as oil and gas, plus wind and solar, before they are converted into “energy carriers” such as fuel oil or electricity — between 2019 and 2030. But the most important renewable remains hydropower, while the most significant increase to 2030 comes from “bioenergy,” that is, burning wood.

So, what proportion of electricity generation did solar account for in 2019 after that transformative 20-fold increase? Two per cent. And since electricity takes up only around a fifth of primary energy demand, the contribution of solar to primary energy demand is 0.4 per cent, which hardly looks like a solar revolution.

Assuming that all those meddlesome mandates and burdensome subsidies stay in place, what will solar’s share of electricity generation be in 2030? According to the IEA, eight per cent — but that still amounts to only a two per cent share of primary energy demand.

The world will still be overwhelmingly fossil-fuelled in 2030. The proportion of oil and gas will be up a bit and that of coal down a bit, but together the three will still account for 76 per cent of primary energy versus 80 per cent last year. Coal will still be responsible for 28 per cent of electricity generation — three and a half times as much as solar — and it will be contributing 10 times as much as solar to primary energy demand. And emissions will still be at levels threatening climate Armageddon, at least if you believe worst-case scenarios.

But all is not lost because there are those fantasy beyond-best-case scenarios, specifically the “sustainable development scenario” and the scenario for policies that will bring the world to carbon neutrality by 2050. The first might be dubbed the “pigs-might-fly” scenario, the second, the “pigs-might-fly on batteries, powered by solar wings, while simultaneously juggling.” These scenarios’ details can safely be ignored, except to note that they demand considerable behavioural changes and personal discomfort. More cycling, less flying. More cold in winter, more heat in summer. (And no actual spin cycle in summer because you’ll be line-drying your washing.) Needless to say, the scenarios simply assume away the inevitable damage to growth and jobs, not to mention freedom, from such socialist masterplans.

One of the most frightening aspects of the report is the suggestion that fossil fuels will have to be, not just wound down, but closed down. The route to destruction suggested is defunding via pressure on the finance industry.

The IEA repeats the now ritual mantra of global governors that “The massive sums of money they are committing to spur economic recovery are a historic opportunity to significantly accelerate transitions towards a cleaner and more resilient energy future.” But the notion of seeing COVID as an opportunity to accelerate a transition to more expensive, less reliable and more disruptive sources of energy is little short of insane, except, of course, from the perspective of bureaucratic self-interest.

According to the IEA, at a time when governments’ response to COVID has been a global shambles, now is the time to place more faith in government. “A surge in well-designed energy policies is needed to put the world on track for a resilient energy system that can meet climate goals.” But bad policy isn’t improved by positive adjectives, and wishes aren’t horsepower.

Peter Foster’s column collection, How Dare You!, has just been published by the Global Warming Policy Forum and is available on Amazon.

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