Interview with the IEA – Solving the ‘energy trilemma’

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Discussions at this month’s World Energy Congress in Korea centred around the challenges of the “Energy Trilemma”– ensuring that energy supplies are secure, equitable, and environmentally sustainable. With the IEA choosing the Daegu congress to launch a report on energy efficiency, Gastech News interviewed the agency’s Executive Director, Maria van der Hoeven, about the world’s progress towards solving the trilemma

Interview by Alex Forbes

We're here at the World Energy Congress in Korea, a conference noteworthy in two respects. It’s the first major energy conference since the latest IPCC climate assessment. And we’re also in the middle of Asia, where energy demand is going to grow faster than anywhere else in the world. One of the big themes here has been the so-called “energy trilemma”.  What’s your view of the progress the world is making towards achieving its conflicting goals?

What we are seeing now is a ramping up to the very important [climate change] conference in Paris in 2015.

There will be growth in energy demand, just because of the growth in population and prosperity. You need keep energy affordable and then there is the climate issue. If you don't take energy-related infrastructure into account, you can’t solve the climate issue. At the same time, you can't tell the 1 .4 billion people who don’t have access to energy that they’re not going to get it because of the climate.

So the trilemma has to be solved, and can only be solved if industry, government and researchers work together. So then the question is: What can an agency like the IEA do?

It is first of all, to visualise things by bringing together data, making the analysis, and then, taking into account what kind of policies there are in place. Then we have a scenario and there is a certain outcome. If you do not want that outcome, you have to change something.

Reality check: At this conference we have focused on energy efficiency and what it can do – with the launch of our latest report. At the same time we also underline that fossil fuels will be around for many decades to come, with coal as number one. That’s a reality check.

In the new report you’ve taken an interesting approach to how energy efficiency should be viewed. Why so?

If you look at what is driving energy efficiency, it's policy and it’s price. When you take that into account and you also see what the energy market is about – supply and demand – then you have to look at energy efficiency as part of that market.

Didier Houssin, Director of Sustainable Energy Policy and Technology: The key point is to look at energy efficiency as a fuel, to help people visualise what is at stake and monetise it, put numbers on it. [Without energy efficiency] you end up with a number where global demand would have been two-thirds higher [than it is now] – a number we ourselves were impressed by.

Untapped potential: Maria van der Hoeven: We recognise that the potential of energy efficiency is not fully tapped because although the technology exists it's not fully utilised. Look just at buildings. We expect that the global population will grow by around 2 billion people between now and 2050 – that’s a lot of houses.

Golden Age of Gas: In 2011 the IEA published a report about the Golden Age of Gas. How have your views evolved since then?

We started by asking a question: will there be a golden age of gas? The year after we published “golden rules” for a golden age of gas –  implying that if you really want to have a golden age of gas you need to apply rules in the way you exploit unconventional gas.

What we can see now is that because of the shale gas revolution in the United States, where gas replaced coal, that coal is now replacing gas in Europe. This, of course, was not the big idea.

Gradually, there is an understanding that gas-fired power plants are really an ally of renewables instead of an enemy of renewables – maybe not forever, but at least in the coming decades. And we are still working on a forum, a high-level group on the golden age of gas, together with a number of countries and companies.

Carbon capture, utilisation and storage: Despite the impressive growth of renewables we still face a future where we’re going to be more dependent on coal than we would like, which raises the issue of carbon capture and storage. I remember a few years ago the IEA being very bullish about the prospects for CCS – and yet we still don't see a full-scale working power station equipped with that technology. Is it still something we should pursue?

The answer to the last part of your question is “yes”. Look at the number of coal-fired power plants that are being built and are planned in many parts of the world. You need to do something about the technology that goes with clean coal and CCS is part of that. I know it's costly and that the developments we have seen in photovoltaics – where technology and deployment have helped to bring costs down – we have not seen yet in CCS.

One reason for that is the question of the storage is not completely solved. Maybe that's why some countries are talking about CCUS [carbon capture, utilisation and storage] – first use it and then store what you can't use. I don't mind discussing that, so long as we know in the end how to get rid of the carbon dioxide. If you only emphasise the use part and forget about the rest you don't solve the problem.

There's another low/zero-carbon technology that is facing a struggle right now, which is nuclear, of course. What's the your view of the situation facing the nuclear industry now?

In our view nuclear will be part of the global energy mix for years to come. But it will differ country by country. Countries that decide to phase out nuclear will have to find different solutions. In Japan we can see they are struggling with that, given their high import dependency, almost 100%.

I do not have all the answers at this moment but I can tell you one thing: nuclear will be the fuel we're going to examine in the World Energy Outlook 2014.