The IEA’s ‘Roadmap’ for Net-Zero Is Full of Dead Ends
The academics and bureaucrats who create models that claim we can run the global economy solely on renewable energy live in a different world than you and me. In their world, there is no shortage of money, land, or commodities like copper, cobalt, and lithium.
In the modelers’ world, wind turbines don’t slaughter birds and bats by the hundreds of thousands per year. The scenarios that they produce ignore the fact that the world’s transportation system runs almost exclusively on refined oil products and that about half of the world’s food production relies on ammonia fertilizer produced from natural gas. The models also routinely ignore the myriad supply-chain problems that would come from attempting a massive increase in the use of solar panels, including the sourcing of polysilicon from China, and in particular, from Xinjiang province, where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are being forced to work for polysilicon manufacturers. The scenarios also routinely ignore the difficulty inherent in trying to string the hundreds of thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines that will be needed to connect wind and solar projects in rural areas to distant cities.
The latest example of this modeling make-believe was delivered last week by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which released a report that claims to provide a roadmap to achieving “net-zero” emissions by 2050. The IEA calls the report, “the world’s first comprehensive study of how to transition to a net-zero energy system by 2050 while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth. It sets out a cost-effective and economically productive pathway” to a “resilient energy economy dominated by renewables like solar and wind instead of fossil fuels.” The report which received lots of attention, including prominent stories in the New York Times and Bloomberg, also claims “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net-zero pathway” because “the unwavering policy focus on climate change...results in a sharp decline in fossil fuel demand.”
To be sure, the IEA’s effort isn’t the first report to ignore the real-world constraints on an all-renewable energy system. Scenarios published over the past few months by academics at Princeton University, Stanford University, and the University of California Berkeley, have all done the same.
But the positive media coverage of the IEA report – and the report itself – glosses over the many strategic and physical constraints that will limit, or rather prevent, any quick transition to renewables. First among them is the world’s ongoing need for oil and gas and how any effort that limits the ability of international oil companies to drill for more hydrocarbons will strengthen OPEC and Russia at the expense of the United States. Furthermore, several Asian countries have already said they will ignore the IEA’s roadmap and continue investing in coal, oil, and natural gas extraction projects.
“Green” technologies will also require an enormous increase in mining to supply the staggering amounts of copper, cobalt, and other minerals that are required by “green” technologies. Indeed, the IEA issued a lengthy report on that latter issue just last month. Those issues have been covered in other outlets, so I will focus here on what are arguably the biggest immediate constraints: the staggering cost to consumers of attempting such an all-renewable effort and the raging land-use conflicts that are already hindering the growth of wind and solar projects in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
The IEA report doesn’t include an estimate of the total cost of converting the world economy to run solely on renewables. Instead, it notes that “To reach net-zero emissions by 2050, annual clean energy investment worldwide will need to more than triple by 2030 to around $4 trillion,” and that “Total annual energy investment surges to $5 trillion by 2030.” But the report doesn’t specify who will be responsible for spending all of those trillions.
Despite that omission, it’s clear that attempting to convert our global energy and power systems to run solely on renewables will likely cost tens of trillions, or even hundreds of trillions, of dollars. Last year, Coilín ÓhAiseadha and Ronan Connolly, two Dublin-based researchers published an academic paper that found that between 2011 and 2018 global spending on solar and wind energy totaled some $2 trillion. “Despite all of this spending, wind and solar energy still produced only 3% of world energy consumption in the year 2018, while the fossil fuels (oil, coal, and gas) produced 85% between them,” they wrote. “This raises pressing questions about what it would cost to make the transition to 100% renewable energies.”
The new IEA report also contains nary a mention of how such an expensive effort will affect low- and middle-income consumers around the world. That’s a notable oversight given that about 800 million people around the world have no access to electricity. And as I point out in my recent book, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, roughly 3 billion people on the planet live in countries where per-capita electricity use is less than what’s used by an average American refrigerator.
Despite those facts, the IEA report says “We estimate that around 55% of the cumulative emissions reductions in the pathway are linked to consumer choices such as purchasing an EV, retrofitting a house with energy‐efficient technologies or installing a heat pump.”
Just as important as the cost problem, the IEA report completely ignores the cartoonish amounts of territory that will be needed to accommodate a major increase in wind and solar deployment. It says “Our pathway calls for scaling up solar and wind rapidly this decade, reaching annual additions of 630 gigawatts (GW) of solar photovoltaics (PV) and 390 GW of wind by 2030, four‐times the record levels set in 2020. For solar PV, this is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day.” (Emphasis added.)
To put that 390 gigawatts of new wind capacity per year into context, according to the latest data from BP, between 2005 and 2019, the average amount of wind installed annually around the globe was about 41 gigawatts. And yet, the IEA is claiming that global annual additions should be nearly 10 times that figure. That begs the obvious question: where exactly will all those turbines be built? That question matters because the backlash against Big Wind is growing in rural regions all around the world.
As I show in a recent report for the Center of the American Experiment, since 2015, about 300 government entities from Vermont to Hawaii have rejected or restricted wind projects. The center is also home to the new Renewable Energy Rejection Database, which includes details on those 300 rejections or restrictions. Indeed, over the last six months alone, three counties in Iowa – the state that produces more electricity from wind than any other state -- have either banned wind projects or issued moratoria on them.
Some of the fiercest fights against Big Wind are happening in the bluest states. Good luck building a wind turbine in Vermont, home of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former presidential candidate and one of the Senate’s loudest proponents for renewable energy. In New York, so many communities are rejecting wind and solar projects that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration recently pushed through provisions that will strip local governments of their zoning and taxing authority so that the state can more easily issue permits for big renewable projects. In California, wind turbines are so difficult to site that most developers have simply given up trying to build new projects in the state.
Ontario has been a hotbed of anti-wind activism. In that Canadian province, 90 local governments have declared themselves “unwilling hosts” to wind projects. The anti-wind backlash is also obvious across the Atlantic. In 2010, the European Platform Against Windfarms had about 400 members in 20 countries. Today, it has more than1,600 member organizations in 31 countries. In Germany, where the government is pushing hard for its vaunted “Energiewende,” rural opposition has led to “a dramatic decline in the number of new onshore wind farms.” Nor is the problem limited to the citing of the wind turbines. It also includes resistance to transmission lines. The German government has estimated that it needs to construct about 3,700 miles of transmission lines to accommodate new renewable capacity. But by the end of 2018, less than 100 miles had been built.
In short, the IEA claims it has published the “first comprehensive study” toward a net-zero emissions world. But even a cursory analysis of the cost and land-use conflicts shows that the IEA’s “roadmap” is chock full of dead ends.
Robert Bryce is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, the host of the Power Hungry Podcast, the co-producer of the documentary Juice: How Electricity Explains the World, and the author, most recently, of A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations