NEWS Renewable power surges as pandemic scrambles global energy outlook, new report finds

Sci­ence Mag­a­zine cov­ers the Green Stim­u­lus. Click here for the orig­i­nal.

The pandemic-​​induced global eco­nomic melt­down has trig­gered a drop in energy demand and related car­bon emis­sions that could trans­form how the world gets its energy—even after the dis­ease wanes, accord­ing to a report released today by the Inter­na­tional Energy Agency (IEA).

The pre­cip­i­tous drop in energy use is unpar­al­leled back to the Great Depres­sion of the 1930s. But not all energy sources are suf­fer­ing equally. Efforts to shift toward renew­able energy could be has­tened as fos­sil fuels, par­tic­u­larly coal and oil, have borne the brunt of the decline. Use of renew­able energy, mean­while, has risen thanks to new projects com­ing online and the low cost of turn­ing wind tur­bines or har­vest­ing sunlight.

The energy indus­try that emerges from this cri­sis will be sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent from the one that came before,” pre­dicts Fatih Birol, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Paris-​​based IEA.

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The num­bers spell out the changes rat­tling the energy world:

  • Global energy demand is expected to drop by 6% in 2020, com­pared with the pre­vi­ous year. That’s a seven times big­ger drop than in the wake of the 2008 reces­sion. The biggest change is pre­dicted for the most devel­oped economies, with a 9% decline in the United States and 11% in the Euro­pean Union.
  • Car­bon emis­sions from the energy sec­tor are expected to fall by 8% for the year—almost 2.6 giga­tons. That makes it the largest drop ever recorded and six times the decline caused by the last recession.
  • Demand for renew­able energy is expected to grow 1% over the year, dri­ven by a 5% increase in use of renew­able elec­tric­ity. That con­trast with fos­sil fuels stems largely from the low fuel costs for gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity from wind, sun­light, or hydro­elec­tric dams.

Year­long fore­casts could change, depend­ing on how long economies remain locked down by a com­bi­na­tion of gov­ern­ment and pri­vate efforts to stem the spread of the new coro­n­avirus. But the first 3 months of 2020 already tell a tale of swift and dra­matic change. Global energy demand fell an esti­mated 3.8%, with much of that com­ing in March, as the virus spread and coun­tries imposed tighter lim­its on busi­nesses and move­ment, accord­ing to the new report.

Coun­tries with strict lock­downs have seen a 25% drop in week-​​to-​​week energy demand as fac­to­ries are shut­tered and peo­ple stay home. Demand fell 18% in nations with par­tial lock­downs. Demand for electricity—a sub­set of total energy—has fallen as much as 20% in locked down coun­tries, and daily pat­terns of elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion resem­ble those usu­ally seen on a typ­i­cal Sunday.

Coal suf­fered the biggest losses in the first quar­ter of the year, with an almost 8% drop com­pared with the start of 2019. Major con­trib­u­tors to the decline included: the lock­down in China, a heavy coal user; com­pe­ti­tion from cheaper nat­ural gas and renew­able energy; and mild win­ter weather. Demand for oil fell by 5%, as car traf­fic was cut in half and air travel by 60% by the end of March. Renew­able energy use, in con­trast, rose 1.5% in the first 3 months of the year.

The pan­demic is reveal­ing down­sides to fos­sil fuels, such as the need for exten­sive stor­age sys­tems and sup­ply chains to move fuel from its source, says Daniel Kam­men, an energy pol­icy expert at the Uni­ver­sity Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. “Those costs are always there,” Kam­men says. “But when there’s so lit­tle demand for fos­sil fuel, what you’re see­ing is the infra­struc­ture to move it around has been overwhelmed.”

The new report noted that new renew­able energy projects could slow if con­struc­tion is slowed by lock­downs or prob­lems get­ting needed equipment.

It’s less clear what will hap­pen once the pan­demic recedes and economies sput­ter back to life. Birol noted that green­house gas emis­sions resumed their upward march fol­low­ing the last eco­nomic down­turn. He urged gov­ern­ments to put clean energy tech­nolo­gies “at the heart of their plans for eco­nomic recovery.”

Some coun­tries have already shown signs they want to head down that path. In South Korea, the rul­ing Demo­c­ra­tic Party, which won a land­slide vic­tory in mid-​​April elec­tions, recently called for clean energy invest­ment as part of its eco­nomic plan. Ger­man and U.K. offi­cials have also said envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns should inform recov­ery efforts.

Kam­men, who is co-​​author of a pro­posal for a “green stim­u­lus” ini­tia­tive in the United States, hopes the cur­rent suc­cess of renew­able energy, cou­pled with people’s expe­ri­ence of cleaner air as less fos­sil fuel is burned, will help win sup­port for such a shift else­where. “One ver­sion of the coro­n­avirus cri­sis is it all eases and we go back to what we were doing before,” Kam­men says. “The other ver­sion of it is peo­ple say, ‘Wow, I hadn’t real­ized how bad things were.’”

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