A Potential Game Changer for Future Electricity Supply

Despite efforts to move to lower-carbon energy sources, the share of fossil fuels in today’s global mix is exactly the same as it was 25 years ago – above 80%. Despite some encouraging signs – particularly regarding energy efficiency – and some new policies, energy-related CO2 emissions continue to rise at a rate that risks a disastrous warming of our planet.

Thankfully, the global energy sector is in transition; countries are assuming new roles and technological advancement is changing the balance. Unconventional oil and gas supply and the growth of renewables are transforming our understanding of the distribution of global energy resources. But not everything is changing. Some of the key indicators of the health of the global energy system remain as worrying as ever. Currently, one in every 5 people on earth lack access to modern energy services. Policy makers everywhere face tough challenges as they seek to balance economic growth, energy security and climate priorities.

Looking to the future, global energy demand is expected to increase by one-third by 2035 with electricity consumption doubling over the same period. How can we expect to meet this demand while enabling a low-carbon future?

Innovative policies and technologies for electricity generation will be the keys to a sustainable future. Action in all sectors is necessary. Yet there is no magic solution to the climate change problem, and no single technology can provide all the answers. A portfolio of technologies – across all sectors – will need to be deployed at an accelerated pace. Lack of support for energy R&D represents a major challenge, given the strategic importance of energy to the economy and the environment. The Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2014 report underlines that the world is not on track when it comes to supporting RD&D (Research Development and Demonstration, Ed. Note) in many such technologies. Therefore policies and measures targeted at supporting RD&D will move early-stage clean energy technologies closer to the market.

Picture: IEA

Picture: IEA

Fusion could be one of these technologies. What needs to be done? And what is the IEA doing about it? Fusion has the potential—but so far only the potential—to be a gamechanger in the future. It has potential to “up-end” our projections entirely, and we would be the first to welcome this safe, reliable, affordable and clean power source. This would indeed be a major achievement for our society, and it is for this reason that the IEA actively, and proudly, supports international collaborative energy research in all areas, including fusion. The IEA Fusion Power Co-ordinating Committee (FPCC) provides a platform to discuss crosscutting research issues and to share results of fusion activities worldwide between IEA Member countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, the European Commission, as well as experts from Partner countries.

The FPCC also oversees the activities of eight fusion Implementing Agreements, or international collaborative working groups, that examine specific policy and technical aspects of fusion power, the largest share of any other category among the 41 currently operating Agreements. The ITER IO and the European Commission (EURATOM) are members of these agreements. As with any prospective technology, we must do all we can to foster further development. Maintaining support for R&D is essential. Fostering public awareness and acceptance is also necessary. These efforts will be particularly important for successful commercialisation of fusion. The IEA’s fusion activities contribute valuable efforts in this regard.

Maria van der Hoeven took over as Executive Director of the IEA in 2011. Ms. Van der Hoeven previously served as Minister of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands from February 2007 to October 2010, prior to this she was Minister of Education, Culture and Science from 2002 to 2007. She was an elected member of the Netherlands House of Representatives
of the States-General between 1991 and 2002. Up to 1987 she was head of the Adult Commercial Vocational Training Centre in Maastricht, after which she served as head of the Limburg Technology Centre until 1991.