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17 July 2017

How BP is detracting renewable energy in its Statistical Review

Every June it happens more or less the same way. British Petroleum (BP) publishes its Statistical Review of World Energy, venting out a few catchy phrases that the mainstream media mindlessly repeats. This time the catch-phrase was: "overall energy consumption is growing faster than renewable energies put together". This discourse is naturally convenient to those set on promoting fossil fuels and/or detracting renewable energy. But is BP really a trustworthy source on the matter?

BP's statistics are a rare source of energy data available for free to the public. For that reason I used it to study fossil fuels for several years. However, its quality visibly degraded with time, and by 2010, as it become impossible to reconcile consumption and extraction figures, I stopped using it. If the BP's data is unreliable regarding fossil fuels, should it be taken as such on renewable energy? That is what this short note tries to find out.

BP divides renewable energy technologies in four different classes: Hydro-power, Wind, Solar and Others. For 2016 it reports total energy generation of 4 000 TWh for Hydro and 960 TWh for Wind - both figures seem ballpark compared with other sources. But when it comes Solar the data starts looking strange: BP reports only 330 TWh generated in 2016; Photo-voltaics (PV) alone should be higher than that figure. The Others category is reported at 560 TWh, a remarkably low figure that is supposed to include Geothermal and Biomass.

The International Energy Agency's (IEA) Solar Heating and Cooling Technology Collaboration Programme publishes an Annual Report that offers a first point of comparison. The agency reports data for 2016 in fine detail, offering three categories for Solar alone (PV, heating and thermal-electric) and unbundling Geothermal and Tidal. The graph below compares the figures reported by BP and the IEA for Wind, Solar and Others (note that the IEA does not report Biomass).


The figures presented by both agencies are fairly close for Wind, with BP's slightly smaller. But on Solar these figures are inconcealable, with BP's offering being only 40% of the value reported by the IEA. Considering installed capacities of PV and solar heating, each of these technologies alone must have generated more energy than the 330 TWh reported by BP in 2016. No doubt then on which figure is wrong.

In the Others category, BP's figure is considerably higher, however, since the IEA's does not include Biomass. And there is a good reason, contrary to what BP implies, Biomass is a much larger energy source, dwarfing all other renewable energy sources put together. The World Energy Council (WEC) published last year a detailed report on Biomass, summing its different categories to 15 500 TWh delivered in 2015. This is about 10% of the energy used in the world; it is more than double that of Nuclear, and little less than half of Gas. The graph below compares BP's Others category with the data reported by the WEC.


Some readers might contend with the classification of Biomass as renewable. Some products might depend on inputs from fossil fuels in the form of fertilisers and all the flora benefits from the extra CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by fossil fuel combustion. Therefore it can be at least claimed that present Biomass harvest rates may not be sustainable in the future. However, it must be noted that about 90% of the Biomass products used in energy generation originate in forests, therefore little dependent on fossil fuels. In any case, whether BP classifies Biomass as renewable or not, it should be reporting an accurate figure, not just a small fraction.

With BP's data coming out as clearly unreliable it is important to devise a more accurate picture of today's energy landscape. Combining the data from the IEA on renewables, the WEC report on Biomass and the fossil fuel statistics compiled by Enerdata, one arrives at the market shares depicted below.


Together, renewable energies meet today 14% of the world's energy consumption, still much to the contribution of Biomass. When put together, modern renewables (i.e. those on which relevant investment started later: Wind, Solar, Geothermal, Tidal) are now meeting more than 1% of world's consumption, a level that in the past showed critical for success. Also noticeable that these "modern" renewables are now equivalent to almost half of their older "brother": Hydro.

Renewable energy is certainly meeting less to the world's energy needs than fossil fuels, but it is far from being the puny contributor BP wishes to portrait. BP naturally is not an independent party in the energy market. BP's statistical review of world energy is often venerated for the amount of data it condensates, but as the errors identified here show, it is an unreliable data source, and should be regarded primarily as a medium of propaganda.