IEA releases mid-term forecast for biofuels, renewable energy

By Katie Fletcher | October 13, 2015

The International Energy Agency released its annual Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report at a Group of 20 leaders’ meeting in Turkey. The report forecasts global market trends and developments for renewable energy and biofuels to 2020.

The MTRMR 2015 indicates that renewable energy will represent the largest single source of electricity growth over the next five years, driven by falling costs and aggressive expansion in emerging economies. Although the report points to the promise renewables hold for affordably mitigating climate change and enhancing energy security, the report warns governments to reduce policy uncertainties that are slowing greater deployment.

“Renewables are poised to seize the crucial top spot in global power supply growth, but this is hardly time for complacency,” said Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director as he released the IEA’s MTRMR at the G20 Energy Ministers Meeting. “Governments must remove the question marks over renewables if these technologies are to achieve their full potential, and put our energy system on a more secure, sustainable path.”

The report's executive summary carries insight on biofuels for transport and renewable heat. “Blending mandates are expected to support biofuels for transport demand and production, even with the lower oil price environment.” The report indicates that, overall, biofuels growth is forecast to stabilize, reaching over 4 percent of road transport demand in 2020. A number of risks limit this growth, however. The U.S. continues to face structural challenges in scaling up ethanol to more than 10 percent of gasoline demand while the EU-28 has introduced a 7 percentage point cap on the contribution of conventional biofuels towards the 10 percent renewable transport target for 2020, according to the report.

The MTRMR notes that significant development of advanced biofuels is necessary for diversification and debarbonization of transport in the long term, particularly in aviation. Since 2013, the report shares that advanced biofuels have made good progress, with nine commercial-scale plants commissioned. Also, policies that mandate blending levels and provide capital incentives, along with the development of secure local feedstock supply chains have been fundamental. The report estimates new projects may require oil prices around $100 per barrel or above to be attractive.

According to the MTRMR, renewable power expanded at its fastest rate to date—130 gigawatts (GW)—in 2014 and now represents more than 45 percent of overall supply additions. The report attributes the fall in fossil fuel prices over the past years to concerns about the competitiveness of renewables and government willingness to maintain policy support. One policy, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, carries uncertainty. The report states, “Amid generally sluggish demand growth, OECD power systems face challenges to maintain long-term policy frameworks while shifting away from high incentive levels and integrating higher variable renewable penetrations.”

In the report’s executive summary, it states renewable electricity additions over the next five years will reach 700 GW, or more than twice Japan’s current installed power capacity. The report concludes that the share of renewable energy in global power generation will rise to over 26 percent by 2020 from 22 percent in 2013.

This deployment is thought to increasingly shift to emerging economies and developing countries, which will make up two-thirds of the renewable electricity expansion to 2020. China will account for nearly 40 percent of total renewable power capacity growth and require almost one-third of new investment over the next five years.

The MTRMR highlights risks that may be associated with increasing deployment. Financing remains key to achieving sustained investment, and regulatory barriers, grid constraints and macroeconomic conditions pose challenges in many emerging economies.

The report shares that wind leads global renewable growth, followed by solar and hydropower. Meanwhile, other renewable technologies grow slower on an absolute basis, but still scale up significantly. The report gives the example of bioenergy supported by coal-to-biomass conversions in Europe and a significant scale-up in non-OECD Asia using domestic resources. Excluding traditional biomass, the report states global renewable energy use for heat will grow only moderately over the medium term. “While renewable heat technologies can be cost-effective options, an extended period of lower oil prices could undermine growth, particularly in bioenergy markets.”

The executive summary of the MTRMR concludes, while energy security and local sustainability concerns prove a first-order motivation for adopting enhanced policies, the improving affordability of renewables can have positive ramifications for global climate change negotiations.

The MTRMR 2015 is part of a series of annual reports the IEA devotes to each of the main primary energy sources: oil, gas, coal, renewable energy and—as of 2013—energy efficiency. The full report is for sale by the IEA bookshop.