Global Energy Systems Conference 2013 – Day 3

The final day of GES 2013 started with Prof. Michael Jefferson giving his keynote address, which you can read here: Prof. Jefferson keynote.  It was an honest (read: depressing) appraisal of how policy has failed to bring about changes in energy generation and consumption over the past 40 years towards something more sustainable.

Prof. Jefferson’s talk makes for interesting reading, although with no slides or references, I can’t easily check his ‘facts’, but as someone clearly so distinguished then who am I to doubt them!  Here are some of his examples of the results of policy failure:

  • 3 billion people rely on traditional biomass: an additional 1.4 billion without “modern energy services”  by 2030
  • 23% reduction in UK GHG inventory since 1990, however this is UK production – include consumption (i.e. embedded carbon in imports) and there has been a 12% net increase since 1990.
  • EU15 reports reducing emissions by 11.3% from 1990-2010, but probably increased by 20% on the consumption basis
  • Likewise, EU27 countries increased emissions by 10%, compared with reported decrease of 16.8%
  • Fossil fuels subsidised globally to the tune of $600bn, supplying over 80% of global energy
  • Globally: oil consumption this year rose 1%, gas consumption rose 2%, coal rose 2.5% (China increased 6%)
  • Globally, renewables have risen 0.5% (to 13% of global energy use), and account for only 3% electricity generated
  • Coal consumption increased 2011-2012: UK (up by 24%), Spain (19%), Italy (16%), Netherlands (8%), Germany (4%, due to closure of nuclear and coal subsidies until 2018), Ireland (17%).  Decreased in USA by 12%, due to shift towards gas.

Criticism was raised about how good renewable energy actually is, effectively attacking biomass, biofuels, tidal energy, wind, and solar for straining use on agricultural land, damaging the environment, and uncertainty over what is actually available to exploit, not theoretically available.  Prof. Jefferson thinks 25% renewable supply globally by 2050 (not 100% as WWF believe) is a realistically achievable number.  He is also critical, and rightly so I believe, that Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) does not traditionally include the societal return on invested energy – energy generation is not simply about producing electricity, but providing a certain expected quality of life.

At a more local level, policy is failing in the UK in allowing (in the speaker’s opinion) wind turbines and biomass plants to be set up in wholly inappropriate locations, at large costs to the consumer via subsidies.  Particularly of scorn in the keynote was capacity factors for wind generation, which are mostly lower than 25% in England (60% of English windfarms in 2010 achieved less than 20% capacity factor), although the picture is slightly rosier in Scotland with mean rolling average of 29%.  And until we have networks capable of dealing with intermittency and electricity storage, wind generators will continue to be paid not to generate electricity (e.g. £1.15 million paid out on 29th April, 2013).  Overall, a difficult talk to listen to.

Dr. Alexander Naumov‘s presentation was a projection of energy use up to 2030, and contained some rather drool-worthy data, such as Figure 1.  With calculated energy intensity for various nations going back to 1820, we can see how energy intensity increases with industrialisation and abundant energy supplies, and then reduces due to gains in efficiency.  What is surprising is that China and India have already peaked.  What the graphs don’t show, however, is that in the Middle East, energy intensity is still increasing, and there was no discussion at all of Africa.

Energy Intensity

Figure 1. Energy intensity as tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) per $1000 of GDP since 1820. (c) Alexander Naumov, BP Global Energy Outlook 2030. Source:

Speaking, however, of India and China, Figure 2 shows the importance of the industrialisation of these two countries on global population, energy consumption and GDP, as projected by BP.  Combined energy use of the two countries by 2030 is anticipated to be around 5.5 billion tonnes of oil equivalent (toe), or over a third of global energy consumption!

Population, energy and GDP growth

Figure 2. Population, energy and GDP growth to 2030. (c) Alexander Naumov, BP Global Energy Outlook 2030. Source:

I wish I could go into more detail about Dr. William Blyth‘s presentation on the influence of price risks on policy design and investment…but while I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it, and it made sense at the time, I’m not confident enough to explain his concepts correctly so I would advise you look through his presentation!  Essentially, there are many financial risks involved when investing in new power generation, like technology costs, fuel prices and prices set by policy (e.g. carbon price).  With power companies in the UK continuing to add to their debt (Figure 3), who else would step up to take the risks on and invest.

Debt levels of UK big 6

Figure 3. Debt levels of the UK ‘big 6’ power generation companies, 1996-2012. (c) Dr. William Blyth. Source:

One of the absolute highlights of the conference for me was the talk given by Dr. Michael Dale, entitled Fueling the Energy Transition: The Net Energy Perspective.  I’ll try not to regurgitate his entire presentation here, but the basic concept is looking at how much net energy is returned from the energy sector, after a proportion of the gross generated energy is ‘reinvested’ back into production.  Some numbers on energy output (i.e. capacity factor), EROEI, and energy payback time (EPBT) are in the following table (Source

Capacity Factor (%) EROEI EPBT (years)
Nuclear 90 10-20 3-5
Coal 80 10-30 2-5
Wind 30 20-60 <1
Solar PV 15 7-30 1-3

The energy investment of traditional energy supply (e.g. coal and nuclear) has historically been low (<5% of gross energy produced), therefore net energy has been bountiful to-date.  The EROEI and EPBT of renewables looks favourable compared with coal and nuclear, but what does this mean for net energy of these sources?  Dr. Dale showed the results of an apparently detailed study of energy balances of solar PV and wind power.  This is what I found most interesting – that of all PV technologies, currently only ribbon solar cells produce more electricity than they consume and is primarily – but not exclusively – a factor of its low cumulative energy demand (CED ~ 1-15) and low capacity factor, Figure 4.   I was surprised at how low the median global solar capacity factor was, to be honest.  However, the industry is improving, but will likely remain in energy deficit until 2015 as a worst case.

Net solar PV

Figure 4. Net energy produced by all solar PV technologies. (c) Dr. Michael Dale. Source:

The wind industry, on the other hand, is less energy intensive (CED ~ 0.5-8) and has a higher capacity factor (23% for this study), therefore the industry is already in net surplus energy produced, Figure 5.

Net energy wind

Figure 5. Net energy produced by wind technologies. (c) Dr. Michael Dale. Source:

And considering storage of intermittent net renewable energy output, geological storage (e.g. pumped hydro, compressed air) is much more energy efficient than electrochemical (batteries), however whatever storage option is chosen may push or keep PV output in deficit.  Wind has so much net output, that storage options and capacity are greatly increased while it can remain a net producer.

So these are all the talks I wanted to cover from the 3 days at GES 2013.  There were debates at the end of each day, but I will admit to not taking much in the way of notes for them as I was far too interested in the to-and-fro of the debates.  But a few things were raised on the final debate by Prof. Zoe Shipton, which I was very grateful for, as they had largely been omitted from the programme: firstly, the need to better educate and communicate energy use and its challenges, setting academia and NGO’s the challenge of improving education; and secondly, the consumers were largely forgotten about in the presentations – the voices and concerns of those affected by energy supply, prices and so on are critical in implementing policies and driving change (or not!).  Community engagement and locally produced power is likely to feature strongly in the future, but there was barely a mention of it.  Certainly there was hardly any social science presented, and perhaps the organisers will consider this for future events.  Otherwise, though, a thoroughly enjoyable conference.  Look forward to next year!


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