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Gas pipes at Gas Connect Austria’s gas distribution node in Baumgarten, some 40 km east of Vienna. There is one thing an energy economist can say with confidence; that the world will continue to grow its energy needs every year, by about 2.5 per cent. (HEINZ-PETER BADER/REUTERS)
Gas pipes at Gas Connect Austria’s gas distribution node in Baumgarten, some 40 km east of Vienna. There is one thing an energy economist can say with confidence; that the world will continue to grow its energy needs every year, by about 2.5 per cent. (HEINZ-PETER BADER/REUTERS)

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Our column was flooded out last week, due to the weather disaster in Calgary. Good humour amidst hardship was maintained with recollection of jokes that start out like, “Did you hear the one about the economist and the weatherman …?”

Inevitably, the punch line portrays the economist as the dunce who has near-zero predictive capability, in lowly stature only one notch below a meteorologist. Yet there is one thing an energy economist can say with confidence; that the world will continue to grow its energy needs every year, by about 2.5 per cent, notwithstanding calamitous events like depressions, World Wars and the Financial Crisis of 2009.

A couple of weeks ago, that ongoing forecast of unbounded energy consumption was validated yet again with the release of the 2012 BP Statistical Review, the authoritative source of annual global energy data. In Figure 1, we’ve compiled and displayed the world’s consumption over the past 11 years, 2002 to 2012, grouped by each of the primary energy sources. Visually, the trends speak for themselves: The use of oil has moderated; natural gas has steady momentum; coal’s resilience should never be underestimated; nuclear is down and out for now; hydro remains the quiet, inoffensive competitor; and renewables are showing good growth, but are still inconsequential to the big picture.

Oil – A laggard among the fossil fuels in terms of demand growth, oil’s year-over-year pace has retreated to 1.5 per cent, compared to 3.3 per cent for natural gas and 5.1 per cent for coal. Oil has been a bipolar story since 2008: for every new barrel purchased in an emerging economy, close to another barrel has been forfeited in either Europe, the U.S. or Japan. That give and take is why global growth has been lacklustre and choppy for the past few years.

Mostly a transportation fuel, the inflation-adjusted price of oil is at its highest level in history, expensive to the point of moderating consumption habits and stimulating new sources of supply like light, tight oil (LTO) and oil sands. Over the past 10 years China has been the place to watch, but the focus is now shifting back to western economies.

Two dynamics are in play in North America: LTO production from resource plays, partially counterbalanced by a halt to domestic demand destruction. If the latter prevails in the United States, demand growth from places like China and the Middle East will be building their thirst for oil on a solid foundation of consumption, rather than one that has been sinking.

Natural gas – Data from BP shows that the use of gas is growing in all parts of the world, especially in emerging markets. Asia-Pacific consumers are especially fond of gas, ratcheting up their use of the greenest of all fossil fuels by 7 per cent per year. Japan wants to mothball its nukes and China wants to diversify its energy diet away from too much high-carb coal. Environmentalists call natural gas the “bridge fuel,” because burning more gas at the expense of oil and coal is the best path for the world to transition to zero-carb renewable energy. Yet, surprisingly abrupt trends like shale gas suggest that natural gas is more likely to be a parking lot than a bridge to any other energy system. The scalability, widespread supply potential and consumer appeal of natural gas makes it the most exciting primary energy source to watch over the next decade.

Coal – In 13th century England, King Edward I banned the use of coal, because records showed that the emissions were, “corrupting the air with great stink and smoke, to the great prejudice and detriment of their health.” Yet, this medieval energy policy was largely ignored; because even 700 years ago coal’s compelling utility to consumers at a low price trumped its environmental detractions. BP’s 2012 consumption data reinforces the notion that we should never rule out coal as a fierce competitor in any country’s energy diet, regardless of domestic policies to mitigate its use.

In emerging countries, coal remains the energy system of choice to bring impoverished citizens into the electrical world. Global growth is trending at 5.1 per cent, supported by China’s linear trajectory averaging 10 per cent year-over-year. Competing energy systems have always sought to take away coal’s market share, and western governments are implementing aggressive policies to diminish its share, but seven centuries of growth teach us to never underestimate the resilience of a long-standing incumbent.

Nuclear – Countless geeky magazines like Popular Science from the 1950s and 60s gushed about the promise of nuclear energy as the unlimited fuel of the future. But half-a-century later, Fukushima reminded the world about the horrors of accidental radiation leaks. Nuclear energy consumption is down by 10.5 per cent over the past two years – mostly, and not surprisingly, in Japan. The downward trend should level out in the next couple of years. Countries like China do have impressive plans for more atomic reactors, but it’s going to be hard to get a chain reaction going again in any western country.

Hydroelectric – Most of the world’s largest rivers have already been tamed to produce electrons, and those that haven’t are subject to big, cross-border geopolitical issues surrounding water use. Nevertheless, hydroelectric power is still growing by over 3 per cent worldwide, again mostly in emerging economies. Steady as she goes, hydro power is unlikely to grow faster, or conversely be watered down in future.

Renewables – On a percentage basis, renewables take the gold for growth with an impressive rate of 13 per cent per year since 2010. But from an absolute perspective the news is more sobering: systems like wind, solar and biomass are not taking market share away fast enough to make a difference to disconcerting metrics like carbon intensity. Because coal and natural gas are also growing at a good clip, on massively higher volumes, the share of renewables in the world’s energy diet (currently 1.4 per cent) is increasing by 0.1 per cent per year. That means that unless something changes, under current conditions it’s going to take 1,000 years to put the fossil fuel industry to bed! Yet we know that innovation that unleashes new energy technologies can occur suddenly, changing the world’s proportion of primary fuels, but knowing when is about as difficult to predict as … the weather.

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