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Global transformation of the electricity sector requires greater efforts to ensure security of supply

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The electricity sector, which plays a large and growing role in energy systems around the world, is undergoing its most dramatic transformation since its creation more than a century ago. The importance of electricity is only set to increase in the years ahead, calling for a more comprehensive approach to electricity security to meet evolving challenges such as cyber threats, extreme weather events and rapidly growing shares of variable electricity generation from wind and solar power, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency.

The report, Power Systems in Transition, is the first major global study to examine in depth these three key areas for the future of electricity security at the same time and offer recommendations for addressing them in a way that supports the acceleration of clean energy transitions globally.

“Energy security is at the heart of the IEA’s mission because it is critical for social wellbeing, economic prosperity and successful clean energy transitions. We are dedicated to helping countries around the world ensure that all their citizens have access to clean, reliable and affordable energy,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “Electricity is essential for the functioning of modern societies – as the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted – and for bringing down global emissions. This is why we are continuing to expand and deepen our work on electricity security.”

The report is being launched today at the 2nd Global Ministerial Conference on System Integration of Renewables, which is co-hosted by the IEA and the Singapore government. The event will bring together Ministers, industry CEOs and thought leaders from around the world for discussions on the theme of “Investment, Integration and Resilience: A Secure, Clean Energy Future.”

Electricity accounts for one-fifth of global energy consumption today, and its share is rising. It is set to play a bigger role in heating, cooling and transport as well as many digitally integrated sectors such as communication, finance and healthcare. In pathways towards meeting international energy and climate goals, such as the IEA Sustainable Development Scenario, the trend will accelerate. In that scenario, electricity could surpass oil as the world’s largest energy source by 2040. Wind and solar’s share of global electricity generation would rise from 7% to 45%, with all renewables combined generating more than 70% of the total.

Many countries today enjoy a high level of electricity security thanks to centrally controlled systems, relatively simple supply chains, and power plants that can supply electricity whenever needed. But recent technology and policy developments are now radically changing the sector and with it, the electricity security model that has prevailed for the past century. These developments include steep declines in the costs of variable renewables, the trends of decentralisation and digitalisation, and the impacts of climate change.

The challenge for governments and utilities is to update policies, regulations and market designs to ensure that power systems remain secure throughout clean energy transitions. The new IEA report maps out key steps for achieving this. An essential goal is to make systems more flexible so they can smoothly accommodate the variable electricity production from wind and solar. This includes making the best use of the flexibility on offer from existing power plants that can generate electricity when required, as well as increasing investments in grids and other sources of flexibility such as demand-side technologies and storage resources. However, global investment in these areas is declining, a trend that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. An increase in investments should be facilitated by better-designed markets that reward power system resources that deliver flexibility and capacity.

The growing digitalisation of electricity systems, the rise of smart grids and the shift to a wider distribution of generation resources offers many opportunities and benefits. But with cyber threats already substantial and growing, it is imperative to strengthen cyber resilience measures and make them a central part of the planning and operation of power systems. Governments can achieve this through a wide range of policy and regulatory approaches – from highly prescriptive ones to framework-oriented, performance-based ones.

The effects of climate change mean that electricity systems need to become more resilient to the impacts of changing weather patterns, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events. This can be accomplished by giving a high priority to climate resilience in electricity security policies and establishing better standards to guide the necessary investments. Enhancing the resilience of electricity systems to climate change also brings multiple benefits.

The new IEA report identifies best practices and lessons learned from around the globe. It also provides a set of recommendations for institutional frameworks that establish clear responsibilities, incentives and rules; measures to identify, manage and mitigate risks; and protocols to monitor progress, respond and recover, including through emergency response exercises.

“The IEA is the world’s energy authority where governments and industry leaders can share experiences and expertise to help move the world towards a more secure and sustainable energy future,” said Dr Birol. “This report is the reference manual for policy-making on electricity security now and for years to come.”

The IEA’s expanding work on energy security challenges will next year include a special report providing a forward-looking assessment of the global supply of critical minerals for clean energy technologies.

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Global emissions are set to surge to an all-time high

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Governments worldwide are deploying an unprecedented amount of fiscal support aimed at stabilising and rebuilding their economies, but only about 2% of this spending has been allocated to clean energy measures, according to new analysis from the International Energy Agency.

The sums of money, both public and private, being mobilised worldwide by recovery plans fall well short of what is needed to reach international climate goals. These shortfalls are particularly pronounced in emerging and developing economies, many of which face particular financing challenges.

Under governments’ current recovery spending plans, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are set to climb to record levels in 2023 and continue rising in the following years. This would leave the world far from the pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050 that the IEA set out in its recent Global Roadmap to Net Zero.

These findings come from the new Sustainable Recovery Tracker that the IEA launched today to help policy makers assess how far recovery plans are moving the needle on climate. The new online tool is a contribution to the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Environment, Climate and Energy in Naples, which takes place on 22 and 23 July under the Presidency of Italy.

The Tracker monitors government spending allocated to sustainable recoveries and then estimates how much this spending boosts overall clean energy investment and to what degree this affects the trajectory of global CO2 emissions. The Tracker considers over 800 national sustainable recovery policies in its analysis, which are publicly available on the IEA website.

“Since the Covid-19 crisis erupted, many governments may have talked about the importance of building back better for a cleaner future, but many of them are yet to put their money where their mouth is. Despite increased climate ambitions, the amount of economic recovery funds being spent on clean energy is just a small sliver of the total,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director.

Governments have mobilised USD 16 trillion in fiscal support throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, most of it focused on emergency financial relief for households and firms. Only 2% of the total is earmarked for clean energy transitions.

In the early phases of the pandemic, the IEA released the Sustainable Recovery Plan, which recommended USD 1 trillion of spending globally on clean energy measures that could feature prominently in recovery plans. According to the Plan – developed in collaboration with the International Monetary Fund – this spending would boost global economic growth, create millions of jobs and put the world on track to meet the Paris Agreement goals.

According to the Tracker, all the key sectors highlighted in the IEA Sustainable Recovery Plan are receiving inadequate attention from policy makers. Current government plans would only increase total public and private spending on clean energy to around USD 350 billion a year by 2023 – only 35% of what is envisaged in the Plan.

The Tracker shows the stark geographic disparities that are emerging in clean energy investment. The majority of funds are being mobilised in advanced economies, which are nearing 60% of the investment levels envisaged in the Sustainable Recovery Plan. Emerging and developing economies, many of which have limited fiscal leeway, have so far mobilised only about 20% of the recommended spending levels.

“Not only is clean energy investment still far from what’s needed to put the world on a path to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, it’s not even enough to prevent global emissions from surging to a new record. Many countries – especially those where the needs are greatest – are also missing the benefits that well planned clean energy investment brings, such as stronger economic growth, new jobs and the development of the energy industries of the future,” Dr Birol said

“Governments need to increase spending and policy action rapidly to meet the commitments they made in Paris in 2015 – including the vital provision of financing by advanced economies to the developed world,” Dr Birol added. “But they must then go even further by leading clean energy investment and deployment to much greater heights beyond the recovery period in order to shift the world onto a pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050, which is narrow but still achievable – if we act now.”

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Portugal’s energy policies set a clear pathway towards 2050 carbon neutrality

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Portugal’s equitable and well-balanced plans for reaching a carbon-neutral economy should support the country’s economic growth and energy security, according to a new energy policy review by the International Energy Agency.

Portugal’s energy and climate policies aim to reach carbon neutrality primarily through broad electrification of energy demand and a rapid expansion of renewable electricity generation, along with increased energy efficiency. These measures are backed by a strong focus on reducing dependency on energy imports and maintaining affordable access to energy. In the longer term, Portugal is aiming for hydrogen to play a major role in achieving carbon neutrality.

“Portugal was among the first countries in the world to set a target for carbon neutrality by 2050, and its Roadmap for Carbon Neutrality shows a strong commitment to electrifying its economy and ensuring a secure and affordable energy transition,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director, who is launching the policy review today at an event with João Pedro Matos Fernandes, Portugal’s Minister for the Environment and Climate Action. “The IEA looks forwards to supporting the Portuguese government as it works on a fair and inclusive transition to a carbon-neutral economy.”

Portugal’s climate and energy goals still face notable challenges, the IEA policy review notes, with an economy that remains heavily reliant on imported fossil fuels today. The report welcomes steps the government is taking to address these challenges. An effective auction process for renewable energy projects should result in almost 2 gigawatts of new renewable generation coming online in the next few years, which will triple Portugal’s solar PV capacity.

Portugal is pushing to reduce oil demand and associated emissions through transport decarbonisation, with over EUR 10 billion of investments in electrified rail and public transport, favourable tax treatment for electric vehicles and support for charging infrastructure. Portugal is also taking a major step towards lowering emissions and reducing energy import dependency by phasing out coal-fired electricity generation in 2021.

Portugal sees a key role for hydrogen produced from renewable energy in hard-to-decarbonise sectors and for achieving carbon neutrality. The National Hydrogen Strategy sets a goal for hydrogen produced from renewable energy to cover 1.5-2% of Portugal’s energy demand by 2030, with use in industry, domestic maritime shipping, road transport and for injection into the natural gas network and potential exports.

“I congratulate Portugal for developing a broad policy framework with robust measures to achieve emission reductions,” Dr Birol said. “Portugal has found a good balance of ambitious targets and competitive support measures needed to drive a cost-effective energy transition.”

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EU energy programme with Eastern partner countries extends into second phase

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The European Commission has launched the second phase of its EU4Energy programme, which promotes low-carbon and clean energy transitions in the Eastern Partnership (EaP), a joint initiative involving the European Union, its Members States and six Eastern European Partners: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

“Promoting the Clean Energy Transition in the Eastern Partnership Countries: EU4Energy Phase II” will run for the next four years and will help develop legislative and regulatory frameworks that support the region’s energy transformation and the liberalisation of its energy markets, as well the digitalisation of its energy systems. Beyond reducing emissions, the programme’s goal is to provide the citizens of the Eastern Partnership Countries with more stable and resilient energy supplies, empowering consumers and increasing energy security.

The International Energy Agency is a partner in the EU4Energy programme along with the Council of European Energy Regulators (CEER) and the Energy Community Secretariat (EnCS). The 8 July kick-off conference for the programme’s second phase includes country representatives from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine who will share their knowhow and experience to further enhance cooperation in the energy sector within the region.

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