Sustainability-in-Tech : Fossil Fuels Peak as Solar & Wind Rise
Independent energy thinktank Ember’s Global Electricity Review 2023 reports that fossil fuel power generation has peaked for the half the world and that clean energy sources now account for nearly 40 per cent of the world’s electricity supply.
Five Years Ago
Ember’s review report, which analyses electricity data from 78 countries representing 93 percent of global electricity demand, says that 2022 marked the peak for power sector emissions, the largest worldwide source of planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2). According to Ember’s figures, this means that the world experienced its first ever annual drop in the use of coal, oil, and gas to generate electricity (other than when in global recession or during the pandemic).
Wind And Solar Up
One of major changes highlighted in the review which has contributed to a fall in power sector emissions is the rise of solar and wind as power sources. For example, following Solar’s share rising by 24 per cent on 2021 and wind power’s share rising by 17 per cent, they now represent a record 12 per cent of global electricity generation last year, up 10 per cent from 2021.
Renewable energy sources and nuclear power combined represented a 39 per cent share of global generation last year, with Solar’s share rising by 24 per cent (enough to meet the demand of South Africa) and wind by 17 per cent from the previous year.
The growth in wind and solar in 2022 met 80 per cent of the rise in global electricity demand.
Ember suggests that another influence on the now general downward trajectory of fossil fuel power generation may be the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For example, spiking fossil fuel prices and security concerns about relying on fossil fuel imports may have made governments look to other energy sources, and may have accelerated electrification, e.g. more heat pumps, electric vehicles and electrolysers. Ember says these will drive reductions in emissions for other sectors, leading to more pressure to build clean power more quickly.
Carbon Emissions Rose As Rising Demand Met From Less Clean Sources
Despite fewer warming gases being produced and the electricity produced last year being the cleanest ever, a rise in global electricity demand and some countries meeting that demand with less clean sources led to a rise in carbon emissions. For example, some old coal-fired power stations were brought back into service to meet demand, causing coal generation to grow by 1.1 per cent.
It also worth noting here that the UK government appears to be planning to meet demand in some less clean ways with the first new coalmine for three decades getting the go-ahead last December, and in July, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attracting criticism by granting hundreds of new North Sea oil and gas licenses.
Ember’s review also noted that although, if taken together with nuclear and hydropower, clean sources produced an impressive 39 per cent of global electricity in 2022, nuclear and hydro electricity’s contribution was hampered by (for example) many French reactors being offline, and Europe’s rivers too low (in many places) for hydro generation.
With China emitting 27 percent of global carbon dioxide and a third of the world’s greenhouse gases, one promising aspect of Ember’s review was that although China is the world’s biggest user of coal power, it also produced 40 per cent of the world’s new solar power and 50 per cent of new wind power last year (and 20 per cent of all solar panels installed worldwide). This could indicate that it may achieve that peak in coal generation earlier than 2025 and move towards cleaner sources.
What Does This Mean For Your Organisation?
Ember’s findings of a transformation occurring from last year in the global power sector is promising and marks a pivotal moment, heralding a shift away from fossil fuels towards cleaner, more sustainable energy sources. The findings of Ember’s review, appear to show that world is moving in the right direction, with fossil fuel use for energy generation appearing to have reached its peak.
This appears to be testament to the growing adoption of renewable energy sources, with solar and wind power leading the way. The clean energy sector accounting for nearly 40 per cent of of the world’s electricity supply is a major milestone in our journey towards a more sustainable future but this transition is not without its challenges. The decline in fossil fuel generation, while promising, is just the first step in a long journey towards a net-zero power sector by 2040 and a net-zero global economy by 2050, and some would say that this journey needs to happen a lot faster.
The task ahead requires not just the continued growth of clean energy sources, but also addressing complexities like grid stability (if it’s relying mostly on solar, wind etc), financing in underdeveloped economies, supply chain capacities, and political resistance from affected regions. These may be critical factors that need urgent attention and innovative solutions to ensure a smooth and equitable transition.
There’s certainly plenty of optimism in Ember’s review (i.e. that fossil fuel generation will decline by 0.3 per cent this year) with bigger falls in subsequent years (as more wind and solar comes online). However, a European Commission report released this month was much less optimistic, saying that the EU area must cut its carbon emissions three times faster to meet its targets. Therefore, it may depend upon which report you read and which part of the world you’re in at this crucial time of transition as to how well things are going with emissions targets.