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Renewables continue to boom globally

By Dave Elliott

BP says renewables have shown ‘a quicker pace of penetration than any other fuel source in modern history’, and their strong growth meant that they ‘accounted for all of the increase in global power generation in 2015’. BP’s latest review of world energy trends carbon notes that wind power capacity grew by 17.4% and solar by 32.6% last year, with China overtaking Germany and the US as the largest solar generator:  REN21 has come up with equally high figures. And looking to the future, both see renewables booming, as does Bloomberg.

For the present, REN21’s latest review puts wind globally at 433GW at the end of 2015, and PV solar at 227GW. Solar heating was at over 435GW (thermal). CSP solar thermal electric reached near 4.8GW, geothermal 13.2 GW. Hydro was at 1064GW, supplying 16.6% of total global electricity. Biomass supplied 14% of total global energy. Overall, renewables, including hydro and biomass, supplied 19.2% of world energy in 2014 and 23.7% of its electricity at end 2015. Modern renewables (mostly biomass) supplied ~8% of final energy for heating and cooling in buildings and industry, and about 4% of transport fuel:

Note that REN21’s 2014 figures for final energy consumption are much higher than the 2.8% energy share quoted by BP for 2015.  The latter is evidently just for new renewables, excluding hydro and traditional biomass. REN21’s 19.2% is for all renewables, and falls to 6.4% without hydro and traditional biomass. BP also uses primary energy figures, with renewable and nuclear output converted ‘on the basis of thermal equivalence assuming 38% conversion efficiency in a modern thermal power station’. That seems odd – there are no thermodynamic losses with non-thermal renewables like wind and PV. Though there are with nuclear, which REN21 says therefore only makes a 2.5% final energy contribution.

Looking to the future,  a recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, New Energy Outlook 2016, sees renewables accelerating even more as costs fall and investment expands. It forecasts investments of $7.8 trillion in renewables by 2040, much more than will be invested in fossil fuels, with a significantly lower trajectory for coal and gas prices’ than in their 2015 report, putting renewables on track to overtake gas by 2027 and coal by 2038.

BNEF says while investment in fossil fuel will continue, cheaper coal and cheaper gas will not derail the transformation and decarbonisation of the world’s power systems. By 2040, zero-emission energy sources will make up 60% of installed capacity. Wind and solar will account for 64% of the 8.6TW of new power generating capacity added worldwide over the next 25 years, and for almost 60% of the $11.4 trillion invested’.

Economics will be a major driver. The levelised costs of generation per MWh for onshore wind will fall 41% by 2040, and solar photovoltaics by 60%, making these two technologies the cheapest ways of producing electricity in many countries during the 2020s and in most of the world in the 2030s. That’s in line with a new IRENA report which says that PV costs will fall by up to 59% and onshore wind by 26% by 2025 (and offshore wind by 35%): it sees PV and onshore wind as having roughly the same cost by 2025, although PV still has a lower load factor -19% v 30% (and 45% offshore). So you need more capacity to get the same output:

Overall BNEF says that, by 2040, 13% of global capacity will be wind, and 29% solar, with 8% available from flexible systems, including storage and demand management. Total behind-the-meter battery energy storage rises dramatically from ~400MWh now to nearly 760GWh in 2040, with costs falling, as 35% of light vehicles are EVs by 2040. Nuclear stalls, with little new capacity being added, so its percentage contribution begins to fall off from the mid 2030s. BNEF don’t mention biomass directly in their scenario, but it may be included in ‘other’ (put at 4%) along perhaps with wave and tidal, or in ‘flexible’ (put at 8%), since it’s a storable fuel.

In terms of regional patterns, BNEF says that China’s coal-fired generation will follow a weaker trend than previously projected. Changes in the Chinese economy, and a move to renewables, mean that coal-fired generation there in 10 years’ time will be 1,000TWh, or 21% below the figure predicted in BNEF’s report last year.  India will be the key to the future global emissions trend. Its electricity demand is forecast to grow 3.8 times between 2016 and 2040. Despite investing $611bn in renewables in the next 24 years, and $115 billion in nuclear, it will continue to rely heavily on coal power stations to meet rising demand. This is forecast to result in a trebling of its annual power sector emissions by 2040. In the EU, renewables will dominate. Wind, solar, hydro and other renewable energy plants will generate 70% of Europe’s power in 2040, up from 32% in 2015. Renewables will overtake gas in the US. Their share will jump from 14% in 2015 to 44% in 2040, as gas slips from 33% to 31%. See national charts at:

Overall, then, it’s boom time for renewables in most places: ‘As new wind and solar capacity is added worldwide, generation using these technologies rises nine-fold to 10,591TWh by 2040, and to 30% of the global total, from 5% in 2015. By 2040, Germany, Mexico, the UK and Australia all have average wind and solar penetration of more than 50%’. Full report:

Many other global scenarios push the renewable total, with all these options and hydro also included, well beyond 50% by 2050, to perhaps 80% or more of electricity generation, or even of energy, with solar and biomass heating and biofuel, synfuel and electric transport, all assuming major commitments to energy saving. These high renewables scenarios also usually avoid even the small nuclear input included by BNEF – which only has a 4% global nuclear capacity by 2040, down from 5% in 2012.

Getting near to 100% renewables by 2050 may be pushing it globally, even for just electricity, with 80-90% perhaps being more realistic, but there are now scenarios suggesting that is possible that for many countries. Indeed, Germany is aiming to get 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2050. In fact, many countries could see over 50% total energy penetration by 2050 e.g. Sweden has already achieved that, while Denmark is aiming for 100% of all energy by then, and many other countries are also trying for high renewable mixes. There are obviously going to be problems, but it is hard not to be enthusiastic about the opportunities ahead.

Will all this be enough to avoid serious climate change? BNEF warns that even the massive growth it projects for renewables under current trends won’t be enough to keep us under the global goal of 2 degrees Celsius of warming. For that BNEF says, the world will need an additional $5.3 trillion in zero-carbon energy, on top of the $11.4 trillion it already envisages, to accelerate it further. Can we find that?  Much of this expenditure will have be made anyway, whatever technology we choose, as old energy systems retire and are replaced. Some of the new more efficient technologies and systems will lower overall energy costs, even ignoring the savings from avoiding the health and climate change impacts of conventional energy technology. Do we have a real choice?

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One comment to Renewables continue to boom globally

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