Investment needed to maintain nuclear's key role, says IEA

13 November 2018

A lack of investment in extending the operating periods of existing reactors and the construction of new ones could have "major implications" for the security of electricity supply and achieving environmental targets, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned.

IEA executive director Fatih Birol speaking at the launch of World Energy Outlook 2018 in London today (Image: WNN)

The IEA today launched the latest edition of its World Energy Outlook. "Major transformations are underway for the global energy sector, from growing electrification to the expansion of renewables, upheavals in oil production and globalisation of natural gas markets," the IEA said. "Across all regions and fuels, policy choices made by governments will determine the shape of the energy system of the future."

The report features three scenarios for the world's energy mix up to 2040. The New Policies Scenario looks at the impact of existing government policies and commitments on energy demand, supplies and investments. The Current Policies Scenario only includes policies that are firmly enacted, providing a benchmark. The Sustainable Development Scenario reflects the energy-related objectives that the international community has set with the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

"The electricity sector is experiencing its most dramatic transformation since its creation more than a century ago," according to the IEA. "Electricity is increasingly the 'fuel' of choice in economies that are relying more on lighter industrial sectors, services and digital technologies. Its share in global final consumption is approaching 20% and is set to rise further."

Under the New Policies scenario, world electricity generation increases from 25,679 TWh in 2017 to 30,253 TWh in 2025 and to 40,443 TWh in 2040. In this scenario, global nuclear generation increases from 2637 TWh in 2017 to 3726 TWh in 2040, when it will account for around 9% of total electricity production, down from the current level of about 10.5%. Fossil fuels remain the major source for electricity generation under this scenario, but their share falls from around two-thirds today to under 50% by 2040.

Electricity generation increases to 30,971 TWh in 2025 and to 42,755 TWh in 2040 under the Current Policies scenario. Nuclear electricity generation increases to 3079 TWh and 3648 TWh, respectively. In this scenario, nuclear's share of total generation drops to 8.5%.

World electricity generation will increase to 28,859 TWh in 2025 and to 37,114 TWh in 2040, under the IEA's Sustainable Development Scenario. In this scenario, global nuclear generation increases to 3303 TWh in 2025 and to 4960 TWh in 2040, when it will account for over 13% of total electricity production.

The IEA notes that the nuclear fleet in advanced economies is ageing, with around two-thirds of the fleet currently older than 30 years. "The future of the existing nuclear fleet will have major implications for the security of electricity supply and achieving environmental goals," according to the IEA. However, it suggests that extensions to the operating periods of existing reactors "are not guaranteed in the face of significant challenges ... Furthermore, market conditions are creating challenging financial conditions for both existing and prospective investment in new reactors. Low wholesale electricity prices are making it difficult to justify the additional capital investment to maintain and refurbish reactors."

It warns that without further operating period extensions and the construction of new reactors, the share of nuclear in generation capacity "will drop substantially". "Should such a situation materialise, the loss of large amounts of baseload zero-emissions supply would have major implications for the energy mix, for energy security and for the emissions trajectory."

A total of USD42.3 trillion needs to be invested in energy supply by 2040. "Nuclear power remains an important low-carbon option for many countries," the report says. "Globally, average annual investment for nuclear is USD47 billion in the period to 2040, including lifetime extensions for existing plants and new construction." China accounts for 28% of the total, followed by the European Union (19%), Russia (11%), India (9%) and the USA (8%).

The nuclear industry has set the Harmony goal for nuclear energy to provide 25% of global electricity by 2050. This will require trebling nuclear generation from its present level. Some 1000 GWe of new nuclear generating capacity will need to be constructed by then to achieve that goal.

"Rapid, least-cost energy transitions require an acceleration of investment in cleaner, smarter and more efficient energy technologies," the report says. "But policy makers also need to ensure that all key elements of energy supply, including electricity networks, remain reliable and robust."

IEA executive director Fatih Birol said: "Our analysis shows that over 70% of global energy investments will be government-driven and as such the message is clear - the world's energy destiny lies with government decisions. Crafting the right policies and proper incentives will be critical to meeting our common goals of securing energy supplies, reducing carbon emissions, improving air quality in urban centres, and expanding basic access to energy in Africa and elsewhere."

He added, "We have reviewed all current and under-construction energy infrastructure around the world - such as power plants, refineries, cars and trucks, industrial boilers, and home heaters - and find they will account for some 95% of all emissions permitted under international climate targets in coming decades."

"This means that if the world is serious about meeting its climate targets then, as of today, there needs to be a systematic preference for investment in sustainable energy technologies," Birol said. "But we also need to be much smarter about the way that we use our existing energy system. We can create some room for manoeuvre by expanding the use of carbon capture utilisation and storage, hydrogen, improving energy efficiency, and in some cases, retiring capital stock early. To be successful, this will need an unprecedented global political and economic effort."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News