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Energy no cleaner despite renewables boom

More than a decade of investment in renewable power generators such as wind farms and solar parks has failed to make the world’s supply of energy any cleaner than it was 20 years ago, according to the global energy watchdog.

Progress on the types of technologies that could save energy and cut the carbon dioxide emissions blamed for global warming is “alarmingly slow”, says the International Energy Agency, in a new report.

“The picture is as clear as it is disturbing,” said IEA executive director, Maria van der Hoeven. “The carbon intensity of the global energy supply has barely changed in 20 years, despite successful efforts in deploying renewable energy.”

Carbon intensity refers to the amount of carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas produced by human activities – emitted for each unit of energy supplied.

In its third assessment of global clean energy technology progress, the Paris-based IEA has produced a carbon intensity index for the energy sector that shows the impact of the billions of dollars spent on renewable energy and other changes since 1970 has been minimal.

The oil shocks of the 1970s helped spur the energy supply to become 6 per cent cleaner between 1971 and 1990. But since then, the index has remained basically static, changing by less than 1 per cent.

This has happened despite the raft of low carbon commitments governments have made at big international conferences such as the 1992 Rio earth summit and the 1997 UN climate change talks in Kyoto.

The continued dominance of coal-fired power plants, especially in fast-growing economies such as China and India, is the main reason why there has been such little change, the IEA says, as well as the relatively slow uptake of lower carbon supply technologies.

“Coal-fired generation, which rose by an estimated 6 per cent from 2010 to 2012, continues to grow faster than non-fossil energy sources on an absolute basis,” according to the IEA report, “Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2013”.

“Around half of coal-fired power plants built in 2011 use inefficient technologies. This tendency is offsetting measures to close older, inefficient plants.”

The shale gas boom in the US has helped push down emissions in that country, as lower gas prices encourage more gas to be burnt than coal. Natural gas plants emit far less carbon dioxide than coal power stations and global natural gas-fired power generation is estimated to have increased by more than 5 per cent from 2010 to 2012.

But this trend is “highly regional”, the IEA says, noting the opposite has happened in Europe where relatively low coal prices led to increased generation from coal at the expense of gas.

The news is not all grim, said Ms van der Hoeven, noting sales of hybrid electric vehicles passed the 1m mark for the first time in 2012, while solar photovoltaic systems continued to be installed at a record pace, and renewable technology prices fell faster than expected.

Solar PV capacity grew about 42 per cent in 2012 compared with 2011 cumulative levels. Wind capacity rose 19 per cent, but policy uncertainty was having a negative impact, especially on US and Indian wind investments.