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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In celebration of Earth Day, a star-studded cast is giving fans a rare glimpse into the secret lives of some of the planet's most majestic animals: whales. In "Secrets of the Whales," a four-part documentary series by renowned National Geographic Photographer and Explorer Brian Skerry and Executive Producer James Cameron, viewers plunge deep into the lives and worlds of five different whale species.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b102b19b2719f50272ab718c44703dd0"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/xOySOlB78dM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Herring are a primary food source for Norway's orcas. Luis Lamar / National Geographic for Disney+
Belugas are extremely social creatures with a varied vocal range. Peter Kragh / National Geographic for Disney+
A Southern Right whales is pictured in the accompanying book, "Secrets of the Whales." Brian Skerry / National Geographic
The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
A Coeligena helianthea hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. Colombia is the country with the largest bird diversity in the world, home to about 1,934 different bird species, a fifth of the total known. JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images
1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat<p>The National Audubon Society recommends the "<a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-find-bird" target="_blank">stop, look, listen, repeat</a>" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.</p><p>First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.</p><p>When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.</p><p>While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their <a href="https://www.audubon.org/section/birding-ear" target="_blank">Birding by Ear series</a>.</p><p>Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you. </p>
5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
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