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Clean Energy Transition: Policy and Program Challenges

By Andrew McKillop

Present policies and programs for massively shifting the world’s energy systems towards non-fossil energy, especially for protecting global climate and environment, are challenged by convergent trends. These focus the global energy economy, the global economy, trade and geopolitical relations, resource and environment constraints, and other pressures or factors.

While the global economy is and remains de facto dependent on the fossil fuels, with overall and total fossil energy demand still rising despite recession, near term future capital expenditure needs for maintaining or increasing world oil and gas supply are forecast to rise very fast. IEA and other estimates suggest that world oil and gas industry capex needs could attain $ 1 000 billion per year from 2016.

Depending on definition, the alternative and renewable energy sources and systems extend from nuclear and hydro to the non-hydro renewables and energy efficiency raising. Increasing their percent share or penetration in the global energy mix is forecast to need a radical and near-term stepwise increase in spending and investment, from current levels. Forecast needs range up to about $ 750 billion per year from 2010-2015.

In brief and cumulatively, the world’s energy industry may need the biggest-ever increase in its share of national and private investment, with an inevitable trend to higher energy prices and conflicting policy choices on fossil energy, versus non-fossil energy and energy saving.

The impact of rising energy prices, in energy markets that will experience increasing volatility and segmentation, both in market terms and by geographic region, will expose the global economy to new challenges from the short term. Economic and policy impacts of these coming structural changes are underappreciated or unacknowledged, due to a number of factors.


Spending plans, and estimates of investment needs to achieve an accelerated transition from fossil fuels, to alternate and renewable sources are generated by policy and strategic reasoning that features the fight against climate change, and action to ensure energy security, increase job creation and protect the environment. Spending plans and proposals for energy transition away from near-total fossil energy dependence are rapidly rising in the G20 countries.

Present estimates, for example as published at the 2009 Davos Forum, extend up to a yearly average of $ 515 billion, or over $ 5 000 billion for the 2010-2020 decade. Other estimates from sources ranging through the UN IPCC, World Bank, OECD Secretariat, national government agencies, major NGOs and climate-oriented investor funds extend from around $ 2 500 bn to more than $ 7 500 bn for the same decade.

Under any scenario 2010-2020 will be the key decade for starting a major shift away from fossil energy on a worldwide basis, for a number of reasons including the political momentum generated through 2008-2009 at G20 meetings.

One major driver for energy transition, often sidelined in G20 leadership statements, is the role of ‘peak oil’ and increasing difficulties in raising net total oil supply. Depending on forecast, for example by ASPO chapters in different countries, oil depletion impacts on world oil export supply or “offer” may result in annual supply loss to export markets attaining over 2.5 Mbd (million barrels/day) by 2015. This is close to the total present oil import needs of either South Korea, India or Germany. Related to increasing capital costs for oil and gas exploration, production and infrastructure development, IEA published data indicates that global oil and gas industry investment needs to compensate depletion losses, and to perhaps raise total net supply could rise to $ 1 000 billion per year, by 2016.

This spending forecast, and forecast net additions to world liquid hydrocarbons or ‘secondary and tertiary’ oil supply, and natural gas supply, provides some general outline for capital costs in barrel-day terms, that is investment needs for 1 barrel-day oil equivalent net addition to global supply. For the period of about 2010-2020, these capex (capital expenditure) costs are sharply rising for oil throughout the period, stable or decreasing for natural gas to 2015, and rising for coal and uranium.

Not only to protect the environment and limit climate change, but also to improve energy supply security, and improve energy efficiency through energy saving, alternate energy and the renewable energy sources has become the focus of converging policy goals. G20 leadership support to “green energy” and “cleantech” is now strong, but financing mechanisms and frameworks are only starting to be discussed and defined. To date, G20 leaderships have made no specific statements on the clear, but undefined policy and investment conflict of massively rising capex needs for world oil and gas, and massively rising forecast spending needs for developing alternate and renewable energy sources and systems.

Estimates for current global investment and spending in alternate and renewable energy are variable depending on definitions used for non-fossil energy, but the likely total runs at no more than $ 70 billion a year in 2008-2009. Net amounts are probably well below $ 70 bn a year when financial operations, like debt and asset refinancing, leveraged buyouts and IPOs are stripped out of green energy spending figures.



Under almost any scenario, amounts invested for energy transition will have to show a stepwise jump, in the next 1 to 2 years. This investment effort will then need to be maintained at a high level, to achieve present and emerging public and international goals for energy transition.

As recently as 2005 or 2006, energy transition away from high level or ‘structural’ dependence on the fossil fuels, to renewable and alternate energy, was given a horizon of around 40 or 50 years. The 'phasing out' of fossil energy, starting with oil was set for a series of dates well after 2050. By late 2009, G20 leaderships and OECD national energy policies now place the horizon nearer 2035-2040, at least for oil and gas if not coal and uranium.

Recent large natural gas finds unassociated with oil (‘stranded’ gas) can or may change the timeframe for natural gas substitution and replacement, leaving nearer-term replacement of oil as the priority transition goal. Coal also presents special challenges, due to present technology coal fired power plants emitting the most CO2 per unit kWh produced, but coal energy being cheap and depending on relatively large and accessible world reserves.

World uranium production, relative to current operating plants and near-term additions to world civil reactor numbers (raising total plant numbers to perhaps 525 - 550 by 2020), presents serious risks of undersupply of reactor fuel, and runaway price rises. Current forecasts for nuclear power plant construction and reactor numbers are highly variable and unsure, we can note. Policy support to nuclear power is relatively weak at this time, notably due to high capital costs and the uncertain outlook for fuel supplies.

At the coming Copenhagen climate summit in December, even shorter timeframes than 2035-2040 for large substitution of oil, and perhaps ‘capping’ of gas and coal energy utilisation could be proposed, if current political momentum, and media and public opinion interest in acting to limit climate change is maintained. The current outlook for continued political and public opinion support to energy transition appears relatively strong, but not assured.

European Union leaders, meeting in December 2008 set a timeline of 2020 for at least 20% of all European energy coming from renewables and a 20% reduction in energy intensity of the economy from a 2005 base (energy per unit GDP output). The European targets could be raised to 25% or 30%, and for some EU27 countries even higher targets are possible or likely.

These targets, and related targets proposed or set by regional and national entities however face the ‘reality test’ of continuing high level dependence on fossil fuels. Where economic change in OECD countries features ‘deindustrialisation’ and outplacement, this merely shifts their oil import dependence from crude and products, to embodied oil energy in the form of manufactured products, raw materials and the transport and logistics for supplying them.

Continuing global dependence on fossil energy (2006 data) is as shown in the chart below


World fossil energy dependence (Source: Wikipedia)



Political engagement for energy transition, at least through 2008-2009 and in the run-up to the December COP-15 climate summit appears clearly set, but this does not extend to exact targets, nor to global policy coordination and financial or industrial support. Targets are still fluid and uncoordinated, and open to controversy.

This is evident from energy and climate negotiations at the level of the G20 group of countries, where major non-OECD countries with different energy economies, and different economic goals from OECD countries are unlikely to target rapid energy transition. Factors such as ‘climate change protectionism’ being introduced into world trade relations, at the level of the WTO, or regional groupings, or bilaterally, could for example generate conflict on G20-wide energy transition target setting.

As the chart above shows, shifting from current heavy dependence on fossil fuels will demand the substitution or saving of extreme high quantities of energy, even with zero growth of world total energy demand. The increasingly shorter horizon targets for ‘driving oil out of the energy mix’, featured in political speeches by several major OECD leaders, implies drastically reshaping national energy economies, while also radically accelerating the growth of non-fossil energy supplies.

While OECD oil demand, for energy utilisation, has shown falls by several percent, in some OECD countries including the USA since 2005-2007, non-energy utilisation of oil remains at a high level, and is growing worldwide, at rates approaching 10% a year for plastics and petrochemicals. Global gas demand is rising rapidly, both for energy and non-energy utilization.

Expressed in oil equivalent terms and excluding non-energy use of fossil fuels (eg. coal for iron making coke, oil for plastics and petrochemicals, gas for agrochemicals), current energy supply from the fossil fuels totals about 150 Mbd oil equivalent.



This sector of non-hydro renewables has attracted the largest investor support and media attention, due to fast growth and widespread utilization.

For global electric power production, windfarms and large area solar PV (photovoltaic) power plants could or may attain a relatively high percentage of installed capacity. This however has to face the ‘reality test’ shown in the above chart. Current world installed electric power capacity, not including private commercial plants and mobile power plants, is around 13 000 GW. Including large private industrial capacity eg. for paper and pulp, cement making and aluminium smelting, the world total in 2008 is likely around 17 000 GW, of which about 50% is coal fired.

Targets as high as 25% of this current-level global electric power capacity (ie. about 4 250 GW), could be possible for global windfarms within 25 to 30 years according to GWEC and other sources.

At end 2008, using EIA, GWEC and other sources, total windfarm capacity was about 150 GW and growing rapidly, by up to 35% a year in some countries. Large array solar PV power plant capacity was much smaller, but also growing fast.

Outside wind and solar electricity, the non-hydro renewables however face special challenges, underlined by the recent boom-slump sequence for “first generation” biofuels based on food crop feedstocks. Achieving large percent shares of world commercial energy from non-fossil energy, by 2030 or 2040 can be quantified. Targets of for example 20%, 25%, 33% or more could be set for 2040, but the higher the target and shorter the timeframe, the larger will be investment spending and needed industrial production, logistics, coordination and R&D support. Targets beyond about 25% of current total fossil energy being replaced or substituted by 2035 (needing about 40 Mbd oil equivalent of new supply or energy saving) could be considered unlikely and unfeasible, without truly massive, global, long-term, coordinated action.

As noted above, proposed targets for energy transition are rising but this has yet to translate into funding at a rate able to shift the energy pyramid away from its massive fossil fuel base, or the institutional and organizational frameworks implied by such a large, long-term, global program. Growth of fossil fuel consumption, even during global recession in 2008-2009, results in ever large transition investments being needed, to satisfy present identified national and international targets. Emerging G20 proposals will be set out at the COP-15 ‘climate summit’ of December, if political agreement across the G20 is sufficient at that time.



Basic policy conflict and competing demands for finance are strong, if mostly latent, between intensified investment and spending on assuring fossil energy supply, and pursuing alternate and renewable energy development. Recent global economic change including the heavy state borrowing and spending in OECD countries and several major non-OECD countries to limit the impacts of global finance crisis may however enable a breakdown of financial barriers to accelerated energy transition.

Through 2008-2009, according to data compiled by, around $ 11 500 bn has been lent, spent, borrowed and guaranteed by government, only in the USA and for the period 2008-2010, to fight recession and bail out the bank, finance and insurance sector. At the global level and according to the IMF and other sources, total loans, borrowing and guarantees may exceed $ 15 000 bn for 2008-2010, depending on the speed and type of economic recovery, and its sustainability. These amounts, if utilised in multilateral coordinated programmes and frameworks for energy transition could probably achieve lasting success in shifting the energy pyramid away from its current and massive fossil energy base.

My own study of financing needs for substituting about 20 to 25 Mbd oil equivalent in the period 2010-2025, to compensate oil depletion, save energy, and develop alternate and renewable energy sources suggest that total investment and spending for this goal would be around $ 11 000 bn in current USD. These findings were published by Australia’s FINSIA in June 2009. Pushing the timelines further forward would however likely raise costs by a large amount, for several reasons including the need to more rapidly attain replacement and savings of current fossil energy, and more rapidly reduce energy dependence on the fossil fuels.



State-backed loans, and public-private funding entities operating to accelerate energy transition are already preferred mechanisms for this goal in OECD countries and in the EU. They are likely to be created across the G20 countries is there is continued political and public interest in, and engagement for limiting climate change, assuring energy supply security, and creating lower economic exposure to high priced oil. This movement towards internationally coordinated energy transition could or might give way to G20-initiated global and multilateral frameworks. Financial and economic institutions including the World Bank and IMF, agencies in the UN system, sovereign wealth funds, large private investor funds including pension funds, and other entities are rapidly developing their policy focus, investment amounts and funding targets for energy transition. The coming COP-15 conference of December will be the forum at which some of these financing mechanisms for energy transition are likely to be announced.

The range of existing and potential measures and mechanisms is large. It includes a global carbon tax, WTO trade tariffs and mechanisms to encourage green energy and incentivize export industry energy saving, preferential feed-in tariffs for green energy, increased climate derivatives trading, and special effort for Cleantech R&D. Sector-wise policy is already developing, for example legislation and incentives, and state or local investment aiming for urban transport ‘decarbonizing’, limits on car fleet average CO2 emissions, consumer product recyclability, reduced household energy use, more energy efficient agriculture, and so on.

For lower income countries, targeted ODA (development aid) and CDM (clean development mechanism) operations and action will likely be greatly expanded, with linked financing support from financial and economic institutions. This process will also include multiple accompanying measures, both in OECD and non-OECD countries.

In other words international and multilateral structures and processes and related, large scale financing mechanisms are sure to emerge, to coordinate government intervention and spending on green energy. To date however, we can note that energy transition frameworks are at best regional (for example EU27 Emissions Trading Scheme and the EU’s “20-20-20” program), and are rapidly emerging, as well as changing rapidly. At present, they are rarely associated with special and dedicated financing frameworks or measures. The example of emissions trading – where the relatively small and specialized markets show extreme volatility – provides an example of an implicit financing mechanism for energy transition, with only low and opaque linkage to on-the-ground, real world development of alternate and renewable energy sources and systems.

This uncoordinated process is likely to continue, and may perhaps radically increase, with all the risks and perils of that process, especially duplication of investment effort and inefficient use of limited resources. G20 leaderships could or might decide a massive increase in state-backed financing of energy transition, but accompanying mechanisms and frameworks for this transition do not presently exist. In the private sector, no alternate energy corporation or entity can for example be compared with the world’s major oil and gas corporations.

One negative impact of this uncoordinated and unprepared ‘start of energy transition’ is to reinforce the trend to increased opacity and segmentation in energy markets, itself generating and maintaining price volatility. The probable basic impact of this context is simple: energy prices will tend to rise, worldwide. Price volatility for energy derived instruments will also tend to rise. One proof of this is CO2 emissions trading price volatility since the start of trading in 2005, and particularly since late 2008. As shown by the lead role player in energy market price setting – oil prices - the ability for oil prices to increase very fast and with little negative feedback is mirrored by the potential for rapid slumps in energy prices, when or if there is a return of financial and economic crisis. Within a context of generally rising, but very volatile energy prices, organizing and structuring finance and industrial mechanisms for energy transition (or massive rises in oil and gas investment) is difficult or impossible.



Green energy transition plans and estimated spending needs are not emerging in a vacuum unrelated to world energy. These plans and spending forecasts, as well as a multiplicity of usually national and uncoordinated legislative, fiscal and financing mechanisms are being set out for a global energy economy that remains totally, and massively dependent on fossil fuels.

World oil demand in Sept 2009 is now back to levels close to one year previous, at around 85 to 86 Mbd (million barrels/day), after falling about 3.5% during the deepest part of the recession trough, through Jan-April 2009. Including growing natural gas demand (probably around 4% per year or more) and continuing coal demand growth (growing at about 5% pa. until the recession), the three main fossil fuels, as noted above, likely contribute a total of more than 150 Mbd oil equivalent to the global energy economy.

This is about 8.2 barrels oil equivalent per capita, per year, for the world’s population of around 6.7 billion.

World per capita oil intensity, an average of about 4.8 barrels in 2008, can be compared with OECD per capita oil intensity, averaging about 13.9 barrels in 2008, and only slowly shrinking. This shrinkage is mainly due to economic recession and to industrial outplacement or ‘deindustrialization’, not of consumption trends, but of the geographic locality where consumer products are manufactured, then imported to OECD ‘postindustrial’ countries using oil-intense transport systems.

Non-oil demand for petroleum, especially plastics and other petrochemicals, is growing rapidly, at over 10% a year, even during the 2008-2009 recession, to attain about 4.5 Mbd only for plastics in 2009. Present low natural gas prices will rather surely lead to a rapid and large, if short-term increase in global gas demand, including non-energy utilization of gas.

World oil energy demand will very likely start to shrink due to rising prices and cheaper natural gas and electricity supplies. Demand for gas will increase, and coal demand can also easily continue growing – if supply is available and prices do not radically shift upwards. This shift away from oil is basically only a price-linked shift to more abundant and cheaper fossil fuels.



Growing fossil energy and non-energy raw materials demand, in difficult production contexts, means only one thing: fast rising capex (capital expenditure) needs. Capex needs in the world oil and gas industry outside OPEC national oil companies, as noted above, are forecast by the IEA as rising to as high as $ 1 000 bn a year by 2016.

This in turn strongly implies higher energy prices despite hopes that expanded natural gas supplies could or might bring down overall energy prices. Rising oil and gas industry capex will tend to set a high floor, for any temporary falls in oil prices, and to the continuation of low priced, or underpriced natural gas and coal.

Factors driving this cost bulge include the combined impacts of rising total demand (both energy non-energy), increasing technology costs to fight depletion impacts, and operations in ever more difficult environmental conditions, including tarsand production in Canada and Venezuela, deep offshore, and polar region oil and gas operations. Giving an idea of what this means, the most recent peak year for global oil and gas spending was 2006-2007 at about $ 400 bn for total capex outside the OPEC national oil companies. Total oil export receipts for OPEC states in 2008, according to the US EIA, were about $ 971 billion.

Taking OPEC maximum export effort as perhaps able to sustain 28 Mbd, and assuming a year average barrel price of $ 100 (the 2008 year average was $ 99), total annual revenues to OPEC would run at $ 1 050 bn. This can be compared with the IEA estimate for global oil and gas industry capex needs from the year 2016, of around $ 1 000 bn a year.

Future oil prices, outside of deep recession are hard to imagine at less than $60 to $75 a barrel; Total SA’s CEO de Margerie has recently forecast that, by 2014, year average oil prices could be around $ 145 a barrel. In particular, forecasting oil prices beyond the region of $ 125 a barrel assumes that the global economy can absorb these price levels, with a rapid increase in all other raw material and primary product prices, especially food, and not repeat the 2008 slump into economic recession. Prices beyond $ 125 a barrel could however easily be attained by 2011, or even 2010, but the economic and fiscal blowback will be massive.



Current US and international natural gas prices, struggling to beat a recent ‘psychological ceiling’ at around $ 4 to $ 4.50 per million BTU, can be seen as a historical anomaly or throwback to another time – when the onrush of new global LNG supplies, and shale-based gas production is not figured into the reasoning. World ‘stranded’ gas finds, as noted above, have radically increased in the last 2 years, allowing forecasts for ‘up to 60 years’ of current consumption being available at relatively low cost.

World LNG is experiencing a form of boom-bust cycle at this time, with uncertain and unpredictable impacts at the level of long-run prices. This is mainly due to the very high capital spending needed for upstream and downstream infrastructures, such as LNG trains and regasification terminals.

The “cheap gas window” is probably unlikely to last beyond 2015, but in the next 5 years increasing gas supplies will have a powerful impact in certain sectors, notably electric power. The potential for bulk electricity price averages to fall, and to show very high volatility, is high and rising. Probably this winter, natural gas prices will tend to be dragged up by rising oil prices, and by natural gas producer country capex and investment effort to developing large increments in world gas supply.

Natural gas demand can only be driven higher by demand outlooks for cleaner, lower carbon electric power generating fuels, and by current bargain basement gas prices, equivalent to oil at around $ 27.50 to $ 30 a barrel. Adding the state-backed rush to develop electric cars and vehicles, signaling vast stepwise growths in peak electric power demand wherever EV fleets grow fastest, natural gas demand, and prices, can only be on an upward track – by 2010-2011.



Through October-December 2009, G20 plans and programs for fighting climate change and recession through initiating, or forcing the rapid growth of Cleantech and Alternate energy will become much clearer. The December climate summit in Copenhagen will be a key milestone. Trickle down to energy markets has, arguably, already started with the summer rebound in oil prices, intense speculative activity in emissions trading, and movement in coal and uranium trading. This again underlines the anomaly for natural gas, where demand for cleaner-fuel electric power production naturally focuses to gas, ensuring consistent and fast demand growth.

Financial and economic risk for the global economy remains very high, despite ‘green shoots’, the equities rebound, and rapid price recovery for many non-energy commodities. Bernanke has already identified the oil price risk for US Fed interest rate thinking. This however ignores the now well known peak oil limits on net supply growth, the long-running Iran nuclear issue, other geopolitical issues in the Middle East, West Asia and Africa, booming car industry output in China and India, continuing domestic oil demand growth in OPEC states and Russia, fast growing world petrochemicals and agrochemicals production, - and the ‘green shoots’ recovery process in OECD countries. These factors all add up.

The net outlook is continued high price volatility for oil, but with underlying growth perhaps to as high as $ 85 to $ 90 a barrel by December 2009. Natural gas prices will tend to stay ‘decoupled’ with oil, but this market will continue recent trends towards much higher volatility. Price breakout to $ 7 per million BTU is increasingly possible.

Cleantech equities markets are globalizing fast, but full EROI and other fundamentals-based analysis of technology and industry processes, and company strengths and weaknesses, is rare or absent in most stock picking. The 2005-2007 boom-bust for biofuels is perhaps receded in investor memory, but underlines the value of real fundamentals-based stock picking. Full EROI analysis needs energy accounting of sector and company infrastructure dependence, often revealing hidden subsidies, and hidden strengths. For the Cleantech sector, this analytic method is specially useful for identifying existing, or emerging niche companies with undervalued equity.

The Cleantech sector, in the next 2 years, will experience dramatic change. Big government intervention, massive but opaque new finance flows, the underlying global economy and investor attitudes will generate a complex cocktail. The fundamentals will however remain solid, notably competing fossil fuel energy prices, led by oil. Moving into the cleantech revolution is now moving up the gears, increasing risks, but also raising the range and type of opportunities.


Andrew McKillop is an energy economist and consultant. He has held posts in national, international and supranational (Euro Commission) energy, and energy policy divisions and agencies. He is the  editor of 'The Final Energy Crisis', Pluto Books; and co author with
Salah al-Shaikhly of  'Oil Crisis and Economic Adjustment', Pinter Publishing. He is a frequent contributor to Petroleumworld and several other energy related sites and groups.Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.

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