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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Is The IEA Too Optimistic About The Energy Transition?

  • IEA’s WEO: Ukraine War and the energy crisis are speeding up the global energy transition.
  • The fast-growing EV market is already causing bottlenecks in the supply of critical battery, and industrial metals.
  • Since the IEA laid out its roadmap for net-zero 2050, oil consumption has only increased.

In its latest World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency stated that thanks to the energy crisis rattling the world right now, demand for fossil fuels would peak, speeding up the transition to renewable energy. But is this just a case of wishful thinking?

The IEA—for the first time ever—sees this happening—across all of the scenarios it devised for its forecast. According to even the Stated Policy Scenario—usually the most conservative of the scenarios—demand for fossil fuels would begin permanently declining in the mid-2020s “by an annual average roughly equivalent to the lifetime output of a large oil field.”

Coal will be the first to go—and in just a few short years from now. Following that comes the end of natural gas, which will plateau by 2030. Oil, meanwhile, should be squeezed out by the influx of electric vehicles.

But will it, really?

The energy crisis that began last year in Europe with short gas supplies fully unfolded this year after Russia slashed exports of the commodity to the EU. This disruption has pushed demand for fossil fuels higher than it was before the pandemic.

At the time, BP was forecasting that peak oil had already occurred in 2019. According to the oil major, oil demand would never again return to 2019 levels. On to of that, everyone who’s anyone in forecasts said that coal demand would never grow globally again, and gas would be a bridge fuel to the renewable energy future. Then gas started getting demonized along with oil as dirty and inappropriate. But that was then—before the crisis.

Now, coal demand has risen because of the gas squeeze in Europe, with countries reopening mothballed coal-powered plants, boosting oil production, and even converting gas-fired power plants to coal for the winter.

Politicians—along with the IEA—seem to believe that this is a short-term demand boost that will expire the moment gas markets return to normal. The problem with this belief is that gas markets will not return to normal in a week or even a month. In fact, it is unlikely that gas markets in Europe will ever return to normal because normal means getting 40 percent of the EU’s gas from Russia.

Related: IEA Expects Demand For All Fossil Fuels To Peak In The Next Decade

With new U.S. LNG supply slow to come online and replace the lost Russian pipeline flows, we could see strong coal demand for a few more years. And then China and India, and other Asian economies will continue using coal because it will remain cheaper than gas, especially liquefied gas, whose price has been driven sky-high by thirsty European buyers.

On the subject of oil demand, the IEA appears to believe that EVs will kill it beginning in the mid-2030s. Yet this would necessitate the production, sale, and use of many millions of EVs, which is far from certain because of the looming shortages in the metal and mineral world.

Warnings about copper supply have been coming from the mining industry and from analysts for months now. Trafigura was the latest to add its voice to them, saying earlier this month that global copper stocks had fallen to dangerously low levels, equal to about 4.9 days of global consumption. By the end of the year, Trafigura said at an FT event, this will be reduced to 2.7 days.

“It is not accidental that the EU has decided to bring forward the target of doubling its solar capacity from 2030 to 2025. All that requires a lot of copper,” Kostas Bintas, Trafigura co-head of metals and minerals trading, said.

“Look at electric vehicles everywhere, [the numbers on the road] are surprising to the upside. That’s a lot of copper too. As a result, we’ve been drawing down stocks throughout this very difficult year.”

What all these warnings are suggesting is pretty simple: there may not be enough raw materials for all the EVs—and solar farms and wind parks—that need to be sold to kill oil demand and usher in the renewable energy future.

According to the IEA, the transition is a matter of energy security, and the war in Ukraine has highlighted that and would likely act as a catalyst for a quicker transition. Indeed, the more locally produced energy a country has, the more secure it is. The problem is that the forms of renewable energy chosen to drive the transition are not very good at providing energy security.

The latest to make that clear was Goldman Sachs’ Jeffrey Currie, who told CNBC this week that some $3.8 trillion was invested in renewables over the past decade, and this massive investment only moved the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix from 82 percent to 81 percent.

Now, Currie went on to note, this share might well be back at 82 percent because of the energy squeeze that has spurred more coal consumption. He also pointed out that the investments in renewables have been in capacity, but the capacity utilization factor of wind and solar installations tends to be quite low. This is what prevents wind and solar from providing the energy security the IEA’s Fatih Birol was talking about.

The International Energy Agency has become quite notorious in the past few years as a champion for the energy transition rather than an energy agency open to all forms of energy. Its emphasis on the transition needing to happen as fast as it can and it having zero causal links with the energy crisis has drawn some skepticism, most notably after the publication of its Road Map to Net Zero.

At the time, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister mocked the plan calling it “La La Land.” Interestingly, since the publication of the road map, demand for fossil fuels has indeed increased and has prompted the IEA itself to call for more investment in them after saying in the road map that we had no more need to invest in additional oil and gas production.

Like that road map, this latest WEO might go down in history as the latest IEA installment of wishful thinking rather than a reflection of any remotely plausible reality.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Nick S on October 30 2022 said:
    YES!
  • David on October 30 2022 said:
    As you say the energy transition like most of modern politics has no basis in material reality. I've been saying for awhile now that copper will be the great limiting factor for the energy transition. not only for the reasons you've stated, but also building a global smart grid to handle the new energy paradigm would take more copper than the world has left in proven deposits.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on October 30 2022 said:
    The IEA is overoptimistic about energy transition not out of its concern about climate change but because of its ignorance and also political motivation. The proof is the claim that the Ukraine conflict and the energy crisis are speeding up the global energy transition.

    The IEA got it wrong when it claimed that the pandemic will usher the demise of fossil fuels and the acceleration of energy transition. It got it wrong again when it predicted peak oil demand to take place between 2025 and 2030. And Fatih Birol the chief of the IEA became the laughing stock of the world when he called for the immediate halt of any new investments in oil and gas in what the Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman mockingly labelled it as the La-la-land roadmap for net-zero emissions. He later reversed his call and even asked OPEC+ to increase oil production and investments in capacity expansion.

    And as the Pandemic failed miserably to become a turning point for renewables, the Ukraine conflict and the energy crisis won’t be a turning point for renewables either.

    But there is a sinister politics behind such claims by the IEA and the green policies of the Western world. They already realize that oil and gas will continue to drives the global economy well into the future. Moreover, they also realize that global energy resources are declining and the bulk of what is remaining is to be found in three major regions of the world: the Arab Gulf region, Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt and the Russian Arctic. The IEA and Western governments realize that the very last three produced barrels of oil will come from these three regions. This fact alone will bestow on the Arabs, the Venezuelans and Russians a huge control over the global economy and a lot of political and strategic clout in coming years.

    Demand for coal for instance has risen by 41% so far this year. Yet the hapless IEA and Western politicians seem to believe that this is a short-term demand boost that will expire the moment gas markets return to normal. With natural gas soaring and also in short supply, the demand for coal will continue to soar well into the future.

    The IEA is absolutely wrong to believe that EVs will kill oil beginning in the mid-2030s. Isn’t very telling that even after hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on EVs during the last thirty years, the number of EVs on the roads currently is 16.5 million compared with 2.0 billion ICEs?

    Another telling point is than $6 trillion have been spent on renewable during the last decade. And yet what they have to show for it is a decline of only 1% in the share of coal in the global primary energy demand which has since been reversed as a result of rising prices of natural gas.

    There can neither be a post-oil era nor a peak oil demand either throughout the 21st century and probably far beyond. Moreover, the notions of total global energy transition and net-zero emissions are myths. Even a partial transition won’t succeed without huge contributions from natural gas and to some extent nuclear energy and coal.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert
  • Carlos Everett on November 01 2022 said:
    The major oil companies are experts on oil and gas demand, yet when they presented their data they were laughed at.

    When others in the industry reminded them that the oil and gas has been established for 150 years and it has taken years to be able to produce 100,000,000 b/d of oil, yet they were laughed at when they questioned replacing all of this with solar and wind by 2030.

    When the oil and gas industry reminded the world that solar and wind only had 25-30 % efficiency compared to natural gas at 70% when comparing BTU's , the world still laughed.

    Then you had Wall Street with the Rockenfeller granddaughter telling the world that oil and gas is finished and they will leave stranded assets, so you should cease investing in this outdated energy. Wall Street just trying to create churn. John Rockenfeller probably turned over in his grave at his relation isssuing such fantasyland predictions regarding ceasing oil and gas investments.

    I am all for reducing energy cost, in whatever form, but surely the IEA or Wall Street have competent engineers and finanical experts, to be able to calculate energy requirements, but obviously, that is not the case. Hopefully some organization will step forward and carefully prepare a accurate 10, 20 and 30 year plan.

    I doubt Biden will be interested in a accurate forecast.

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