Wind and solar are growing at a stunning pace (just not enough to stop climate change)
There’s good news and gloomy news on climate change in this new report on renewable energy from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
First, the celebratory stuff. Renewable energy — mostly wind and solar, plus a little geothermal and biomass — is growing at a record pace. Last year, the world’s nations plunked down $286 billion on renewable energy, twice what they spent on coal and gas. For the first time ever, renewables made up fully half of all new electric capacity, with 118 gigawatts coming online. Next time someone scoffs that renewables are a niche market, toss them this PDF.
In all, renewable energy (excluding large hydropower dams) provided 10.3 percent of the world’s electricity in 2015, up from 9.1 percent the year before:
Countries also added 22 gigawatts worth of large hydropower and 15 gigawatts of new nuclear last year. If you include hydro, renewables now provide 22 percent of the world’s electricity. If you add in nuclear, the carbon-free total rises to 33 percent.
The growth in clean energy still isn’t fast enough
So now comes the sour “yes, but…” This breakneck growth in clean energy isn’t nearly fast enough to drive the sort of sharp CO2 reductions needed to tackle climate change. Not yet, at least.
For one, the world is still building lots of carbon-belching coal and natural gas plants. The fact that wind and solar remain relatively expensive and can’t run 24/7 means there’s ample demand for fossil-fuel generation.
Last year, the world added 43 gigawatts worth of coal capacity, on net, and 40 gigawatts worth of natural gas capacity. Because these coal and gas plants can run more often, they actually generated more electricity than all the new renewable facilities built in 2015.
As long as fossil fuel generation keeps expanding rather than shrinking, it’ll be tough to push down global CO2 emissions. And this dynamic isn’t set to change anytime soon. The report notes that few forecasters think CO2 emissions in the global power sector will peak before 2026. (A separate report from McKinsey & Company, meanwhile, predicts that coal and gas will still provide most of the world’s electricity in 2040.)
Keep in mind, too, that this report mainly focuses on the electricity sector, which only accounts for 40 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions. If you really want to whip global warming, you’d also need to clean up transportation. Plus figure out what to do about cement, steel, and other industries. There are a few encouraging signs along those lines — the report notes that battery prices keep plunging and electric vehicle sales are expanding — but it’s early days yet