The ‘tantalizing’ possibility of free IEA energy data has researchers enthused

In a possible boost for climate research, the International Energy Agency is proposing to remove the barrier on its large energy database.

Climate and energy researchers from all around the globe have reacted positively to the announcement that the International Energy Agency (IEA) plans to make its massive energy database publicly available.

At their next ministerial conference in Paris on February 2-3, energy ministers from the IEA’s 30 member states will examine a proposal to remove the paywall from their reports and data.

Selling raw data and analysis accounts for around a quarter of the IEA’s budget, or €5.6 million ($6.3 million). According to an internal staff email discovered by Quantum Commodity Intelligence, the IEA’s chairman Fatih Birol aims to replace paywall earnings with new donations from member states or private contributors.

“I am hopeful that, with the support of several members and large philanthropists, we will be able to find a creative solution that will allow us to make it a public good, in the interests of improving market transparency and promoting good energy/climate decision-making,” Birol reportedly said in the note.

“We are evaluating alternatives to significantly improve the quantity of data that is provided for free to more people while maintaining the Agency’s financial stability,” an IEA spokeswoman told Climate Home News.

It will be a success for Our World in Data, an open data analysis site that began advocating for the change in 2020.

A tweet inquiring if anybody had used the IEA’s data generated over 50 replies and 190 likes in a matter of minutes. The bulk of the comments were from researchers who said they liked the IEA’s data but were disappointed by the paywalls and copyright limitations that some of it had.

“It’s so hard to obtain the newest data for nations all over the world,” Ember electrical analyst Dave Jones said. “And as the IEA has made leaps and bounds adding additional datasets and making it even more up-to-date, it’s exciting to see [whether] this would be publicly available.”

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Mar Rubio-Varis, a Spanish energy economist, stated she utilizes IEA data “whenever I can get my hands on it.” “Paying, taking from colleagues who paid,” she continues. It must be available to the public, and it must be able to be discussed and amended if necessary.”

Barry McMullin is a professor of engineering at Dublin City University in Dublin, Ireland. “Our focus is on energy system decarbonisation at a national level,” he told Climate Home News. One aspect of this is attempting to downscale IEA global scenarios in order to see whether or not they fit with our more bottom-up/local country analyses… Having unrestricted access to the IEA datasets (and, eventually, their models!) would undoubtedly aid us in this type of research.”

Copyright limitations on the IEA’s free and paywalled content, according to Hannah Ritchie of Our World in Data, make research more difficult and opaque. She believes that academics should be allowed to exhibit their work so that it can be scrutinized, but copyright constraints prohibit this.

She claims, for example, that the IEA’s examination of jet fuel data is the only source of historical aviation emissions data. “So we’re in this absurd scenario where we can’t even publish a data set on aircraft emissions dating back to 1960,” she explained.

The cost of an IEA report might run into the thousands of dollars. Researchers who can’t afford them must rely on less thorough sources, such as BP’s yearly statistical evaluation of global energy.

BP uses measures that are favorable to fossil fuels. It contains information on primary energy use but not on total energy consumption. When fossil fuels are converted to electricity, most of the original energy is wasted as waste heat, unlike renewables.

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“It would appear that you would have to create vast amounts of renewables and other low-carbon sources to basically fulfill the energy supply,” Ritchie added, using primary energy. “However, this isn’t true because it includes all of the inefficiencies in fossil fuels that would be eliminated if you decarbonised,” she continued.

In addition, the oil firm offers very little data from the world’s poorest countries. “If you live in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, you’re not really participating in the public debate because your government doesn’t have open data,” Ritchie added.

“The IEA provides open access to its data and publications to all governments and the press, and distributes much of its data for free or at a substantial discount to not-for-profit groups, researchers, and academics,” an IEA spokeswoman stated.

“The majority of data sales are created by private corporations and consultancies exploiting it for commercial reasons,” they stated. The cash earned from these sales accounts for around a quarter of the IEA’s core budget, decreasing the need to seek extra support from member nations.”