Growing global energy demand could spur another three years of market volatility and record power plant pollution if countries do not make major changes to the way they produce electricity, the world energy watchdog has warned.
The International Energy Agency recorded the largest ever increase in electricity demand last year, which caused outages in major economies and led to historic rise in energy prices and record emissions.
The IEA annual report on electricity said that this could continue for another three years, with serious consequences for consumers and economies, if there is no faster structural change in the way electricity is produced.
The sharp rise in electricity prices in recent times has caused hardship for many households and businesses around the world and risks becoming a source of social and political tensions, said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.
The IEA found that global demand for electricity increased by 6% last year, following the global economic recovery from the 2020 pandemic recession, the largest increase since 2010 when economies began to recover from the global financial crisis. The total increase in electricity demand was over 1500 terawatt-hours, the largest in history.
About half of the increase in electricity demand occurred in China alone, where it increased by about 10% compared to 2020. China and India both suffered from power outages in the second half of the year because coal supplies did not demand for their power plants managed to keep pace, leading to an economic slowdown in Asia.
In the UK, electricity market prices have reached record levels in recent months, mainly because the electricity grid continues to rely on gas-fired power plants for almost half of its electricity. The cost of operating these countries has risen following a global gas supply crisis, which has caused record high market prices across Europe.
Rising cost of keeping the lights on has made the UK face a national energy crisis as household bills have risen, energy suppliers have collapsed and factories have been forced to close.
The global strain on electricity systems has also led to record emissions from energy production as economies turn to cheaper coal-fired power plants to keep a lid on rising costs.
Policymakers need to take action now to mitigate the impacts on the most vulnerable and address the root causes, Birol said. Higher investments in low-carbon energy technologies, including renewables, energy efficiency and nuclear power, along with the expansion of powerful and intelligent electricity grids can help us get out of today’s difficulties .
The IEA report found that renewable energy sources grew by 6% in 2021, but that growth was unable to keep pace with rising demand as economies reopened after sudden Covid-19 blockades that had drowned economic growth.
To meet the recovery in energy demand, coal-fired power plants generated 9% more electricity last year, or more than half the global increase in energy demand, to reach an all-time peak as gas became more expensive. Electricity produced by gas-fired power plants increased by 2% last year, according to the IEA, while nuclear production increased by 3.5%.
The return to the dirtiest sources of electricity caused total carbon dioxide in the world (CO2) emissions from energy production will increase by 7% to a new all-time level after falling the previous two years, the IEA said.
Birol warned that emissions from electricity would have to fall by 55% by 2030 if the world hopes to limit the growth of global warming by becoming net zero carbon by 2050.
But in the absence of major political action by governments, those emissions are set to remain around the same level for the next three years, he said. This not only underscores how far we are currently from a path to zero net emissions by 2050, but also underscores the massive changes needed for the electricity sector to fulfill its critical role in decarbonizing the wider energy system.
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