Analysis: Renewables Could Match Coal Power Within 5 Years, IEA Reveals
By Simon Evans
Renewable sources of electricity are set for rapid growth over the next five years, which could see them match the output of the world's coal-fired power stations for the first time ever.
This would mean renewables matching coal as the joint-largest contributors to the global electricity mix in 2024, according to Carbon Brief analysis of new forecasts in the International Energy Agency (IEA) Renewables 2019 report.
The analysis is based on the IEA's "accelerated case," in which the combined capacity of hydro, wind, solar and biomass increases by more than 60% over the next five years. Even in its "base case," renewable capacity is set to expand by nearly 50%, the IEA forecasts.
Dr. Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, writes in a foreword to the report that "thanks to falling costs, technologies such as solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind are at the heart of transformations taking place across the global energy system." He adds: "Their increasing deployment is crucial for efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, reduce air pollution and expand energy access."
The IEA's base-case renewable forecasts have historically underestimated the pace of growth. Yet even in its accelerated case, the extra electricity from renewable sources will fail to keep up with rising overall demand, the IEA forecasts suggest.
This means that generation from fossil fuels would also have to increase, along with the electricity sector's CO2 emissions, rather than falling rapidly as required to meet global climate goals.
In its base case, the newly published 2019 IEA report forecasts that global renewable energy capacity will increase by close to 50% in the five years to 2024, as the chart below shows (red line).
This would mean global hydro, wind, solar and biomass capacity rising from 2,501 gigawatts (GW) in 2018 to 3,721GW in 2024. The increase of 1,220GW means the world would be building renewable capacity equal to the entire U.S. electricity system today, says the IEA.
Global renewable energy capacity, gigawatts, between 2010 and 2018 (black line) and IEA forecasts for five years ahead published in each year between 2013 and 2018 (shades of blue). Forecasts for 2019 are shown in red (base case) and dashed-red lines (accelerated case). Source: IEA Renewables 2019 report and previous iterations. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
Within the base case total, wind and solar capacity would nearly double, contributing around 85% of the increase for all renewables, with hydro accounting for another tenth and bioenergy 4%.
It is worth noting, however, that the IEA's base-case has historically underestimated the pace of growth, as the chart above shows. As a result, successive forecasts have been revised upwards in light of increasingly favorable policy conditions and faster-than-expected reductions in cost.
In a series of auctions tracked by the IEA, the cost of solar has fallen from $160 per megawatt hour (MWh) in 2014 to an average of $17/MWh for projects due to start operating in 2023, while for onshore wind the costs have fallen from $65/MWh in 2014 to $30/MWh for 2023.
The IEA has also included an "accelerated case" in its 2019 forecasts, shown with a dashed line in the chart, above. In this case, renewable capacity would increase by more than 60% to 4,036GW in 2024, adding 1,535GW in five years, equivalent to the current total fleets of the U.S. and Japan.
This is not the first time that the IEA has hedged its view for the next five years.
Back in 2016, for example, the agency's base case forecast some 826GW of renewable capacity being added by 2021, with an accelerated case adding 1,061GW. This accelerated case from 2016 aligns closely with the 2019 base case, which has 1,096GW being added during 2016-2021.
The IEA forecast is based on detailed bottom-up analysis of the market, policy and electricity system outlook in each of 41 individual countries and every world region.
Capacity growth is expected to be concentrated in just a handful of regions, the IEA says, with 40% in China, 17% in Europe, 11% in the U.S. and 9% in India. Together, these account for four-fifths of the global increase in the IEA's base case.
As already mentioned, renewable capacity has consistently oustripped the growth expected in the IEA base case, which has tended to suggest that annual additions will remain at a similar level into the future, rather than consistently rising year on year.
The amount of new renewable capacity built around the world, each year since 2006, is shown in red in the chart below, while successive base-case forecasts are shown in shades of blue.
Annual renewable energy capacity additions, gigawatts, between 2006 and 2018 (red line) and IEA forecasts for growth over five years published between 2013 and 2019 (shades of blue). A 2019 "accelerated case" is shown with a dashed red line. Source: IEA Renewables 2019 report and previous iterations. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
As in previous years, the IEA has once again raised its forecast growth over the next five years, adding 14% to the amount of new capacity that it expects to be built. Last year, it forecast growth of 1,070GW over the five years to 2023. Now, it is forecasting 1,220GW in the five years to 2024.
Responding to a question from Carbon Brief, Heymi Bahar, IEA senior renewable energy analyst and a lead author of the report told a pre-publication press call that this upwards revision was due to a roughly 50/50 combination of more favorable policy and lower costs.
On the policy side, Bahar pointed to a series of additional renewables auctions in the EU, initiated as countries look to meet their 2020 targets and as the bloc's 2030 goals have been firmed up. In China, grid expansion and market reforms have reduced the amount of renewable electricity that is "curtailed" – generation that is wasted due to insufficient grid capacity or an excess of supply.
The flattening of renewable capacity growth during 2018, seen in the red line in the chart, above, was also largely down to changes in China. This stalling marked the first time in two decades when the amount of renewable capacity built each year failed to exceed that seen before.
During 2018, China started to shift decisively away from support based on "feed-in tariffs" that pay renewables a fixed price for each unit of electricity generated and towards a system of competitive auctions awarding a fixed pot of money or capacity to the lowest bidders.
This seismic change in the policy landscape of the world's largest market for renewable energy had been widely expected to dent global growth, including in last year's IEA report. Yet as this year's figures show, despite a small dip in China itself, the global picture was buoyed by strong growth in other markets, keeping growth steady overall, rather than the expected decline.
The pace of expansion in renewable capacity has already dented the prospects of fossil-fueled sources of electricity in many countries, eating into their market share and changing the way wholesale prices vary across days, months and seasons.
Nevertheless, the growth of global electricity demand has been such that generation from fossil-fuel sources has continued to rise, increasing the sector's contribution to CO2 emissions. Moreover, coal has comfortably maintained its position as the world's largest source of electricity.
IEA executive director Dr. Birol says in a press release:
"Renewables are already the world's second largest source of electricity, but their deployment still needs to accelerate if we are to achieve long-term climate, air quality and energy access goals."
Since 2010, global supplies of renewable electricity have expanded by 60%, adding enough output to power half the U.S. economy. Yet this growth was only sufficient to cover half of the increase in global electricity demand, with the other half coming from a roughly equal split of coal and gas.
Over the next five years, the IEA base case forecasts that renewables will meet a larger two-thirds share of the increase in global demand. This would mean a continuing, if somewhat diminished role for coal and gas in meeting rising demand, with extra CO2 emissions to match.
Since the majority of demand growth would be met by renewables, they would claim an increasingly large share of the global electricity mix. In the base case, renewables (red line and dots) would increase their share from 25% today to 30% in 2024, gaining five percentage points in five years. This would largely come at the expense of coal (black), which would drop to 34% of the mix, but would remain the biggest contributor to global electricity supplies.
Change in the share of global electricity generation accounted for by coal (black lines), renewables (red), gas (blue) and nuclear (purple) between 2018 and 2024. The IEA base case is shown on the left while Carbon Brief's estimate of the mix in the IEA accelerated case is on the right. Source: IEA Renewables 2019 report and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
Given the increase in demand overall, gas in particular, but also coal, would see their output – and emissions – increasing over the next five years in the IEA base case, despite losing market share.
The IEA's report does not include equivalent figures for its "accelerated case," where renewables grow more quickly than expected. However, Carbon Brief analysis of the IEA's capacity forecasts suggests it could mean renewables matching coal as the world's joint-largest sources of electricity.
This is shown in the chart, above right, where the renewable share of global electricity supplies would reach 32% by 2024 and coal would fall to a similar level. But even in this accelerated case, renewables would meet only 80% of the increase in demand, with gas making up the remainder.
This accelerated case for renewables could mean coal output flattening or even starting to decline out to 2024, but not at the rate required to get onto a pathway compatible with global climate goals.
As in previous years, the IEA sets out three areas that would need to be addressed in order for the accelerated case to be realized. These are: policy and regulatory uncertainty; high investment risks in developing countries; and managing the integration of variable renewables into existing grids.
(The IEA notes that in the early stages of wind and solar deployment curves in each country or region, "integration challenges are often not as serious as anticipated.")
The integration issue is a particular concern for "distributed" solar, the IEA suggests. This includes residential rooftops, but also larger commercial and industrial rooftop systems, which tend to have lower costs, the IEA says.
Given costs for these systems are now at or below the price of retail electricity in most countries – with costs set to fall a further 15-35% by 204 – there is an "explosive cocktail" of ingredients is in place for a "boom" in distributed solar capacity, Paolo Frankl, head of the IEA's renewable energy division told a pre-publication press call.
Dr. Birol told the call that this sector had "breathtaking" potential, but would need to be carefully managed so as to balance the interests of distributed solar owners, other consumers and the companies that manage electricity grids.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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