The Energy Transition: Bumpy Ride in 2024 and Beyond

When analysts show you charts of the energy transition over time, such as percentages of renewable energy, EV sales, or peak oil production, have you notice how future years are a smooth curve while past years are a zigzag? Do you really think this will happen?

An industry transition is never smooth. It’s like riding a rickety roller coaster in the dark, with heart-stopping drops, sharp turns, unexpected loops, and sudden dead ends.

That bumpy ride awaits us in 2024 and beyond as we transition away from fossil fuels.

To understand where we’re going, I pay close attention to developments in the oil market, since it is the bedrock of the current energy system. Currently, worldwide crude oil (and other liquids) production is around 102 million barrels per day (mbpd), having decreased to 91 mbpd during the pandemic. Road fuels are by far the largest use of refined oil. Worldwide sales of combustion passenger vehicles and trucks have already peaked, but more vehicles are still entering the fleet than being scrapped. Therefore, global oil demand is expected to rise again by about 2 mbpd in 2024. However, China announced that 2023 marks peak gasoline demand in China, with plugin share of newly registered vehicles is now approaching 40%. We can expect that the world’s fleet of combustion vehicles will soon start shrinking, explaining the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) stated policy scenario of a peak in oil demand before 2030. Clearly, EVs will gradually choke off demand for oil over time. Then the ride will get really bumpy.

Many oil producers (countries) say that they will continue to produce throughout the transition and beyond. They can’t all be right. Historically, countries in the OPEC cartel (and OPEC+, created in response to falling oil prices driven by US shale oil output) have acted as balancing producers, reducing their output to maintain prices. But OPEC is now facing a crisis. Angola is the latest country to leave OPEC. The cartel now accounts for just 27 million barrels per day. Additionally, some non-OPEC producers are increasing their output, such as Canada, which expects to produce 5.3 million barrels per day by year-end 2024, from 4.8 mbpd in 2023. The United States is on track to reach a new record high of 13.1 million barrels per day in 2024 (or perhaps as much as 13.35), up from 12.9 million barrels per day in 2023.

How will this get resolved? Nobody knows for sure. Saudi Arabia is currently the lowest cost oil producer. They may choose to limit their output to maintain high prices for a few more years, assuming that the other OPEC and OPEC+ countries follow suit. Or they may choose to lower prices in the hope that US shale oil producers will stop drilling new wells and reduce output. Or the Saudis may decide to abandon Russia, with Russia then becoming even more dependent on China, with unknown geopolitical implications. Or new wars in the Balkans or Taiwan will disrupt global supply chains. Or all this, and more, may happen over time.

In addition to bumps caused by oil and gas hazards, we can also expect further bumps in the clean energy supply chain itself. Clean technology is evolving rapidly, and some of today’s darlings will fail, to be replaced by something better that nobody knows yet. Some new technologies will have to go through a long maturation process before they succeed, as we have seen with the initial problems in large offshore wind turbines. Some promising clean technologies will fail to scale from MW to GW, limiting them to niche applications. Some new products will just be bad, such as some early EV models from traditional automakers. Not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) activism can delay the implementation of clean energy projects or even lead to their cancellation. The clean tech supply chains are already tight, with, for example, lead times on electrical transformers stretching into years. The risk of a mineral supply disruption, such as that of copper, is very real. Geopolitical factors further increase uncertainty, with much battery, solar panel and wind turbine manufacturing now concentrated in China, as well as mineral processing, including for rare earths.

I hope that you are not already getting sick from all these roller coaster bumps, because the transition will bring more of them. A successful transition away from fossil fuels will mean winners, but there will also be losers: oil workers in developed countries could lose their jobs, while developing countries dependent on oil could face budget shortfalls and possible civil unrest, with unknown humanitarian and geopolitical consequences. Some developing countries may not be able to obtain reliable electricity from renewable sources due to supply chain issues. However, there is a glimmer of hope here: the distributed and local nature of these technologies offers hope of alleviating the energy poverty experienced by 1 billion people who cannot afford the use of fossil fuels.

So, we do not know what the next bumps will be, but what can we prepare for?

Overall, the energy transition is expected to hurt the bottom line of oil and gas companies, whether due to reduced volumes or lower prices. These companies also pay a higher risk premium due to volatility and uncertainty. The upstream oil and gas business, including exploration and extraction, has become increasingly risky and less profitable. In contrast, midstream activities such as transportation, storage and wholesale should be less affected in the short term. Also, some believe that there will be no peak in global oil production before 2030: OPEC expects demand for oil to continue growing through 2050. There is no consensus or certainty regarding this transition. Still, if you work in upstream oil and gas, look for opportunities to apply your skills in clean energy — geothermal and offshore wind comes to mind. If you work downstream, opportunities may include green hydrogen production (to replace grey) and EV charging networks (but expect this to be different than gas stations).

While low oil prices may delay the clean energy transition, they would reduce investment in oil and gas and therefore free up capital for investments in clean technologies. Furthermore, disruptions in oil and gas supplies can lead to price rises. These events also tend to increase investment in clean technologies, as we have seen in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For fossil fuel companies and countries, it is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, regardless of their actions. Global investments in clean electrification, low-emission fuels and energy efficiency are already higher than those in coal, oil and natural gas, with more consistent returns for clean energy projects. Few would doubt that clean energy investments will generally continue to accelerate (with bumps along the way, for sure). 

As we transition away from fossil fuels, four major categories of electrical loads are driving the growth of the power system. These are electric heating (for residential, commercial and institutional use), transportation electrification (including EVs, but also rail and other means of transport), electrification of industrial processes (including heating and drying, but also electrochemistry and possibly new applications such as direct iron reduction) and hydrogen production (replacing grey hydrogen as a chemical feedstock for ammonia and methanol, not as an energy carrier). Trillions of dollars will be invested in customer electrical systems and devices. 

The electricity grid must grow significantly to meet the needs of these new electrical loads. Depending on the current level of electrification, grids in regions such as Québec will have to grow by 1.5 or 2 times by 2050, while those in the US Northeast will have to grow perhaps 4 times, and even more in developing countries. This means trillions of additional investments in clean energy generation, transmission and distribution in the coming years. However, such a high rate of growth with mainly intermittent wind and solar sources requires that conservative electric utilities adopt new ways of thinking and working. Utilities face many challenges: attracting participation in demand management, demand response and energy efficiency programs; integrating new grid technologies, like storage; reducing interconnection delays for renewable projects; improving service reliability; building a new generation and transmission infrastructures; managing tight labour market; ensuring affordability, fairness among customers and prudent investments; managing evolving regulatory and power market requirements; and more. Governments and regulators will need to develop well-thought-out policies and market designs to support utilities during the energy transition. Unfortunately, dumb policies are still far too common, as is currently happening in Texas and Alberta.

Truth also risks becoming another victim of the transition. The twists and turns of the transition roller coaster will provide opportunities for everyone—deniers and alarmists, roughnecks and tree huggers—to believe that they are on the right track, only to derail later. Unfortunately, energy transition is a complex subject and “common sense” is often wrong. Many people also hope to make a quick buck by jumping on the energy industry bandwagon. They bring ideas and inclinations imported from other fields, but which may not be relevant here. There is no magic solution to the energy transition.

As a final word, don’t let yourself be swayed by the latest bumps on the energy transition roller coaster. Keep an open mind and stay calm, relying on unbiased and well-informed sources. Transforming the world’s energy systems into sustainable ones takes time and efforts, but it is happening. The world to come will be different, but better in many ways.

All the best to you and yours for the coming year!