The International Energy Agency (IEA) in its latest World Energy Outlook (WEO), published on 13 October, says transition to a clean energy system is progressing too slowly for the world to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. However, the report provides analysis of how the world can still move towards a pathway that would have a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C but sees no key role for nuclear power.
In his Foreword to the 386-page report, IEA Executive Director Dr Fatih Birol says the WEO was being published early because of the November COP26 Climate Change Conference meeting in Glasgow. “This year’s edition of the WEO has been designed, exceptionally, as a guidebook to COP26. It spells out clearly what is at stake – what the pledges to reduce emissions made by governments so far mean for the energy sector and the climate. And it makes clear what more needs to be done to move beyond these announced pledges towards a pathway that would have a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C and avoiding the worst effects of climate change,” he notes.
“Reaching the critical but formidable goal of net zero emissions by 2050 will require major efforts from across society – but it also offers major advantages in terms of human health and economic development,” he says. “What comes through very clearly in this new WEO are the huge opportunities that come with clean energy transitions – for manufacturers of wind turbines, batteries, electrolysers and a host of other technologies. A new global energy economy is emerging, with the potential to create millions of decent jobs across a host of new supply chains.”
The report considers three scenarios. The Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario (NZE) sets out what needs to be done to move beyond announced pledges to reach net-zero emissions globally by 2050. The Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS) represents a path based on the energy and climate measures governments have put in place to date, and specific policy initiatives under development. The Announced Pledges Scenario (APS) maps out a path in which the net zero emissions pledges announced by governments so far are implemented in time and in full.
In the STEPS scenario, almost all of the net growth in energy demand to 2050 is met by low-emissions sources, but annual emissions remain unchanged with global average temperatures continuing to rise to reach 2.6°C above pre-industrial levels in 2100. In the APS scenario, demand for fossil fuels peaks by 2025, and global CO2 emissions fall by 40% by 2050. All sectors see a decline, with the electricity sector delivering by far the largest. The global average temperature rise in 2100 is held at around 2.1°C.
Global electricity generating capacity more than doubles in the STEPS scenario from 7782GWe in 2020 to 17,844GWe in 2050. Renewable capacity increases from 2989GWe in 2020 to 11,692GWe in 2050, with the capacity of unabated fossil fuel plants up slightly from 4361GWe to 4555GWe. Nuclear generating capacity increases from 415GWe to 525GWe between 2020 and 2050, with output increasing from 3115TWh to 3711TWh.
In the APS scenario, global generating capacity in 2050 rises to 22,795GWe, with renewables accounting for 16,514GWe of this, nuclear 641GWe and unabated fossil fuels 3207GWe. Total generating capacity reaching 33,415GWe by 2050 in the NZE scenario with renewables accounting for 26,568GWe, nuclear 812GWe, hydrogen and ammonia 1867GWe and unabated fossils fuels 677GWe.
"The differences between the outcomes in the Announced Pledges Scenario and the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario are stark, highlighting the need for more ambitious commitments if the world is to reach net-zero by mid-century," the IEA concludes.
In total, nuclear is mentioned just 104 times throughout the report, mostly in passing or in tables. It is clearly not a key factor in IEA’s considerations which focus mostly on renewables. Chapter 5 - “Exploring multiple futures” looks at liquid fuels (oil), gaseous fuels (natural gas, low carbon hydrogen and biogas), and solid fuels (coal and solid bioenergy). Nuclear is not considered at all.
"The outlook for nuclear power depends on decisions yet to be made about both existing reactors and new construction," the IEA notes. "Over the next decade, the expansion of nuclear power is largely determined by the nearly 60 GW of capacity under construction in 19 countries at the start of 2021. China, Russia and Korea have successfully constructed many recent projects in five to seven years both at home and abroad, so it is possible that some additional reactors that start construction before 2025 could be completed by 2030.”
The report adds: "Beyond 2030, there are over 100GW of planned projects that have not yet broken ground and several times that proposed individually or through policy targets. There is more uncertainty about the pace of retirements for existing reactors, with many ageing reactors in the United States, Europe and Japan in need of additional investment (and new regulatory approvals in some cases) to extend their operational lifetimes. Lifetime extension decisions also face challenging market conditions, rigorous safety checks and social acceptance issues."
The IEA says innovative nuclear power technologies - such as small modular reactors - could offer shorter construction and approval times for new capacity, as well as expanding opportunities for nuclear power beyond electricity, for example for heat and hydrogen production. However, it says "innovation efforts need to be accelerated to improve their prospects."
The report says that at the heart of the NZE is “a massive transition in the way we produce and consume energy”. Low emissions sources of energy supply grow by two-thirds between 2020 and 2030. “The expansion of solar, wind, and modern bioenergy is particularly significant, while hydropower and nuclear also contribute.”
The accelerated electricity sector transition in the net zero pathway “requires a large increase in investment in generation and networks in the current decade”, compared with the APS. “However, low technology costs and the availability of low cost financing in many markets means that policy makers could establish enabling conditions in which up to 60% of the additional generation of solar and wind in the NZE could be achieved at no additional cost to consumers.” The report adds: “Additional cost-effective measures related to hydropower, nuclear lifetime extensions and some new nuclear projects could displace up to an additional 1000 terawatt-hours (TWh) of coal- and gas-fired generation in 2030.”
IEA makes clear that “renewables are set to become the foundation of electricity systems around the world”. Over the next decade, announced pledges drive a renewables expansion that is fast enough to keep pace with electricity demand growth and reduce the need for fossil fuels in electricity. “The share of renewables increases from almost 30% of global electricity generation in 2020 to about 45% in 2030 in the APS” and the share of renewables in generation exceeds that of fossil fuels, although it is still around 15 percentage points short of the level reached in the NZE. “Solar PV and wind lead the way, thanks to low costs, widespread availability and policy support in over 130 countries: their capacity more than triples over the next decade, which is nearly enough to meet all electricity demand growth to 2030, and their share of generation rises from under 10% in 2020 to nearly 30% in 2030.”
Other commercial technologies – hydropower, bioenergy and geothermal – also contribute to the expansion of renewables, while earlier stage technologies such as concentrating solar power and marine power gain a foothold. Other low emissions sources increase their output by over 800 TWh over the next decade in the APS, complementing the growth of renewables.
The report notes: “Nuclear power capacity in operation expands by over 10% by 2030 in the APS, with 25 countries completing new reactors. This more than offsets retirements of ageing reactors, mainly in advanced economies. In the NZE, further efforts to extend the safe operation of existing reactors and accelerate new builds in countries favourable to nuclear power raise its output by another 15% by 2030. Beyond 2030, advanced nuclear power technologies such as small modular reactors expand opportunities for nuclear to produce low emissions electricity, heat and hydrogen.”
IEA concludes that closing the gap from the APS to the NZE scenarios in the electricity sector requires policy makers to take action to:
- Scale up the supply of low emissions electricity from wind and solar;
- Accelerate the deployment of dispatchable sources of low emissions electricity such as hydropower and nuclear;
- Stop investment in new unabated coal-fired power plants, while retrofitting, repurposing or retiring existing unabated fossil fuel plants; and
- Enhance the flexibility of electricity systems to accommodate high shares of variable renewables.
IEA says: “In the NZE, there is an annual market opportunity that rises well above USD 1 trillion by 2050 for manufacturers of wind turbines, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, electrolysers and fuel cells. This is comparable in size to the current global oil market. This creates enormous prospects for companies that are well positioned along an expanding set of global supply chains.
The report notes: “The potential prize is huge for those who make the leap to the new energy economy….Governments are in the driving seat: everyone from local communities to companies and investors needs to be on board, but no one has the same capacity as governments to direct the energy system towards a safer destination.”