Wind, solar fulfill 10% of global electricity demand for first time

Curb your enthusiasm – coal-fired power went up too

In a global first, wind and solar energy combined to generate more than 10 percent of the world's electricity in 2021 – though coal-fired power plant generation and emissions jumped to new highs in the same period, too.

The 2022 Power Transition Trends report by new energy fund BloombergNEF (BNEF) found that power generation emissions in general leapt up in 2021 as the global economy rebounded from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much of that new power generation came from renewable sources, with wind and solar accounting for three quarters of capacity added in 2021. When accounting for hydro, nuclear, and other zero-carbon power sources, that number rises to 85 percent of 2021's new capacity.

Those gains were spoiled by a resurgence in coal-fired power plants, use of which BNEF said was up by a record 8.5 percent between 2020 and 2021. BNEF cites rapidly rebounding energy demand (which rose 5.6 percent year-on-year in 2021), reduced hydro generation due to droughts, and high natural gas prices in Europe as primary drivers of the coal surge.

"New spikes in coal generation are a troubling sign for the economy, our health, and the fight against climate change. This report should be a rallying cry to leaders around the world that the transition to clean energy requires bigger and bolder actions," said Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the UN Secretary General's special envoy for climate ambition and solutions. 

Raking climate change solutions over the coals

For the first time since 2013, BNEF said in the report (PDF), "coal-fired power plants were the top contributor to top-line power generation growth." The report said that coal accounted for the majority of additional generation in 2021 – not to be confused with newly added generation, of which coal was a small component. 

Still, coal continues to occupy the largest single share of global electricity generation at 27 percent, and it may continue to rise in 2022 "as European nations seek short-term solutions to compensate for droughts and extremely high gas prices," BNEF said. 

While European coal plants might be earning the blame, they aren't responsible for most of the coal generation, BNEF said. That honor belongs to three countries that account for 63 percent of burned coal: China, India, and the United States. 

China holds the crown for coal-fired power generation, accounting for 52 percent of total coal usage in the world. India accounts for 11 percent of coal, while the US burns approximately 9 percent. The US could see itself slip out of the top three, however, as BNEF said it's the only country in the top 10 coal burners to reduce its coal generation since the beginning of the decade. 

The remaining seven top coal-burning countries (Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, South Africa, Germany, Russia, and Australia), together with the top three, are responsible for 87 percent of coal-generated power.

Net capacity being added to power grids around the world is dominated by renewables, and fossil fuels continue to decline, BNEF said. It added that natural gas was leading the way in new fossil fuel power generation, but that could be in peril, too.

As BNEF noted, natural gas supplies have been imperiled by Russia's war with Ukraine. With the potential sabotage this week of a gas pipeline between Russia and Europe, coal could gain even more sway on the continent. In Germany alone, 3.2GW of coal-fired capacity has been reactivated, and BNEF said it expects Germany to add another 5.5GW of additional coal capacity by the end of the year. 

"Other European countries are expected to follow similar paths," BNEF said. ®

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