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New lenses for the future

Shell Picture 3 Peter Cheney summarises the New Lens Scenarios and discusses their findings with Shell energy analyst Rhodri Owen-Jones.

Shell’s first scenarios were produced during a time of turbulence in the early 1970s. The New Lens Scenarios were launched in March last year and look ahead over an era of global volatility as a growing population puts pressure on food, water, land and energy supplies.

The world’s population is heading towards 9 billion people by 2050 – up from 7 billion today. With millions of people emerging from poverty, global energy demand could increase by as much as 70 per cent by the mid-point of the century. Two possible scenarios of the future – Mountains and Oceans – are used as ‘lenses’ through which to view the world.

Mountains foresees a strong role for government and the introduction of firm and far-reaching policy measures. Power is concentrated among those who already hold power. Urban development becomes more compact and the global transport network is transformed, moving away from oil to other sources. As new supplies are released, gas becomes the largest global energy source by the 2030s.

Oceans describes a world that is more prosperous but also more volatile. Strong economic growth drives a surge in energy demand. Power is more widely distributed across the globe and governments take longer to agree major decisions. As a result, market forces rather than policy shape the energy system. Oil and coal remain part of the energy mix but renewable energy also grows and, by the 2060s, solar becomes the main energy source – partly as it attracts less opposition than wind but mostly to do with being price-competitive.

Discussions are continuing with governments (up to head of state level) and industry representatives and also internally as the team briefs other parts of the company on its long-term thinking.

“There’s an awful lot of interest,” Shell energy analyst Rhodri Owen-Jones comments. “Of course, it’s an inherently interesting topic – talking about the future – and especially as they’re not just energy scenarios but also looking at the macro-economic and the political and socio-cultural as well.”

The scenarios group has around 25 staff, based in The Hague, and Shell is keen to ensure that the scenarios are widely known among its stakeholders.

He adds: “It’s a good message, it’s an interesting message and they’re there to provoke debate and get people thinking.” The scenarios do not provide answers in themselves but open up new questions and thinking. There are no preferred or excluded audiences and the scenarios act as a “good tool for dialogue” with all stakeholders.


Delivering an energy system that delivers security, affordability and sustainability involves an alignment between technology, markets and policy. Owen-Jones comments:

“So often that relies on the trio of government, civil society and business all working together but – as you see – that doesn’t always work very well.” As an example, he points to the widespread opposition to fracking and nuclear power.

“Everyone actually has to work together,” Owen-Jones affirms. “When we talk about collaboration, we need to start working more with bodies that perhaps we haven’t worked with in the past.” This could involve energy companies working with NGOs, new relationships between NGOs and governments, and NGOs influencing the rest of civil society.

Shell has just released a supplement on how cities could develop in the Mountains and Oceans scenarios, produced in conjunction with the Government of Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities. It has also worked with the Development and Research Centre – China’s main think tank – on energy pathways: “We bring a modelling of energy systems to help them understand the pressures and stresses that are going to arrive on the system.” Urbanisation is the mega-trend and the 1950-2050 will become known as “the century of the city”.

shell scenarios-1 Transitions

During his presentation at the Energy Ireland conference, Owen-Jones noted that the world is entering an era of volatility and transitions in which supplies of food, water and land will come under increasing pressure.

The pathway to limiting global temperature rises to 2°C is missed in both Mountains and Oceans – and more so in Oceans as market forces replace policy. Oceans also foresees trust in government falling away and quick – but not necessarily reasonable – opinion-forming. This could lead to more pressure to block infrastructure development.

“There are always things that take you by surprise,” he says. “For example, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the fact that Germany of all countries decided to close down all its nuclear plants.” The “sudden and relentless increase” in natural gas and unconventional oil also stands out.

Shell’s last scenarios were published four years ago. The preferred one – Blueprints – anticipated that difficult decisions would be taken sooner rather than later, leading to a better balance of economic and environmental needs. The alternative (Scramble) describes how the world has developed since then i.e. a more reactive approach, focusing firstly on increasing energy supply and then facing the consequences afterwards.

Owen-Jones is disappointed to see the limited level of co-operation or collaboration between sectors. “It’s just churning from day to day with no grand plan,” he remarks.

Shell would like to see a move towards the Blueprint scenario or some element of Mountains but the course is still going “along that scramble for resources path.”

Applying scenarios to Ireland

Shell’s internal analysis for Ireland anticipates that energy consumption will increase alongside a growing economy and population although this increase is limited by more efficiency in the Oceans scenario. In Mountains, gas becomes the backbone for the Irish energy system with oil playing a decreasing role. Biomass would be more important than oil by 2050. In Oceans, gas and oil remain almost equally important but renewables continue to grow.

Both scenarios point to a continued reliance on imported gas – at the end of a long pipeline. Domestic production would rise over the next 15 years before falling again. Ireland’s wind potential far exceeds its total final consumption