By around 2020, the United States is projected to produce the largest volume of oil worldwide—surpassing even Saudi Arabia for several years—according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency’s latest edition of its flagship publication, “World Energy Outlook” (WEO). Renewables also are predicted to reach the vanguard of the global energy market within the next 25 years.
The recent rebound in U.S. oil and gas production, driven by upstream technologies that are providing access to oil and shale gas resources, will produce a domino effect in global markets – and the energy sector. North America will become a “net oil exporter” by around 2030, achieving a much larger degree of energy independence. This development will accelerate a switch in direction of international oil trade toward Asia, putting a focus on the security of the strategic routes that bring Middle Eastern oil to Asian markets.
In addition, the report predicts, consumers can expect to see growing linkages in other areas. A current example is how low-priced natural gas is reducing coal use in the United States, freeing up coal for export to Europe (where, in turn, it has displaced higher-priced gas).
Renewables to Rival Coal
The report projects that a steady increase in hydropower, coupled with the rapid expansion of wind and solar power, will fortify the position of renewables in the global energy mix. Indeed, according to the IEA, within the next two decades, renewables will account for nearly one-third of total electricity output—and solar generation will grow more rapidly than any other renewable technology. .
By 2015, renewables will be second only to coal as the world’s largest source of power generation; and, by 2035, they will rival coal as the primary source of global electricity. While the rapid increase in renewable energy will be buoyed by falling technology costs, rising fossil-fuel prices and carbon pricing; it will largely be contingent upon continuing subsidies. Rising from $88 billion globally in 2011, subsidies will approach $240 billion in 2035. However, the IEA warns that subsidy measures to support new renewable energy projects must be adjusted over time, as capacity increases and as the costs of renewable technologies fall, to avoid placing excessive burdens on governments and consumers.
Drought Would Have Dire Effects
The report also cautions that water is essential to the production of energy, and the energy sector already accounts for 15 percent of the world’s total water use. Its needs are set to grow, making water an increasingly important criterion for assessing the viability of energy projects. In some regions, water limitations already are affecting the reliability of existing operations and they will introduce additional costs. Expanding power generation and biofuels output underpin an 85 percent increase in the amount consumed (the volume of water that is not returned to its source after use) through to 2035.
The vulnerability of the energy sector to water constraints is widely spread geographically, affecting, among others, shale gas development and power generation in parts of China and the United States, the operation of India’s highly water-intensive fleet of power plants, Canadian oil sands production and the maintenance of oil-field pressures in Iraq. Managing the energy sector’s water vulnerabilities will require deployment of better technology and greater integration of energy and water policies.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman