During the pandemic and severe economic downturn with massive job losses, there has been a great deal of bad and disturbing news. A little bit of good news in that mix is the recent finding that global wind power and solar power electricity generation doubled in the last five years, according to a new report from EMBER. As wind power and solar power grow, it is possible for nations around the world to reduce their over-reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power. Dave Jones, a Senior Electricity Analyst with EMBER, answered some questions for CleanTechnica about this trend and related topics.
In the first half of 2020, wind power and solar power generated almost 10% of global electricity, according to your report. Would you expect the same to be true for the second half of this year as well?
Roughly, yes. The COVID impact of lower electricity demand and lower fossil generation was not what drove wind and solar’s market share up to a tenth of global electricity supply in 2020 so far, rather it was the continual new-build of new wind and solar. Sure, fossil generation is picking up a little as electricity demand increases post-COVID, but this translates very little into wind and solar market share.
Do you have an estimate of what this figure might be in 2021?
We expect in 2021 that wind and solar will generate more electricity than all of the world’s nuclear power plants. Nuclear power generated 10.5% of global electricity in the first half of this year, compared to 9.8% for wind and solar, and we think there is enough new wind and solar installations being built that they will overtake nuclear for the first time ever.
Isn’t this fact that solar and wind are growing significantly rather uplifting or impressive, in that as a species we are gradually transitioning from fossil fuels and all their pollution and climate change problems to clean, renewable energy that doesn’t have them?
Yes, it’s very uplifting that both wind and solar are now so mainstream, generating so much electricity in so many countries. The sad fact is though, that this is not enough to come close to keeping the planet to 1.5 degrees of climate change. Coal generation needs to collapse in just the next 10 years even for most energy scenarios for 2 degrees. Although wind and solar are eating coal’s market share, this isn’t happening fast enough.
According to your report, did global wind power and solar power electricity generation double in the last five years? What is driving this growth and where is most of it taking place?
It’s very heartening that so many countries are on the same transition at the same time. Wind and solar doubled from 5% to 10% of electricity on average across the world, and this was reflected in many key countries: Japan was 4% to 10%, China was also 4% to 10%, Brazil again was 4% to 10%, US was 6% to 12%, and Turkey was 5% to 13%.
Are wind power and solar power essentially replacing electricity generation from coal?
The best news is that wind and solar is eating coal’s market share. Coal has been around 38% market share of global electricity production for around half a century, but since 2015, as wind and solar’s share rose from 5% to 10%, coal’s share fell from 38% to 33% – an unprecedented rapid fall, by historical standards. And we’ve seen wind and solar replace coal’s share in so many key countries: China, Europe, the US, India, Japan and Australia.
The US generated 12% of its electricity from wind and solar in the first half of 2020, but the UK was at 33% and Germany achieved 42%. The US typically is a technology leader and yet is behind with solar and wind power — why is this?
The US is so far behind because the public, policy-makers, and companies do not care about climate change as much as Europe does. It’s also been distracted by fossil gas, building over 100 GW of new gas power plants in the last decade to fuel its shale gas habit. Europe is leading the world on wind and solar deployment, which is providing valuable solutions on how to integrate a higher and higher proportion of wind and solar into the electricity mix. So the US is exciting because now that the economics of wind and solar are so compelling, and with the learnings from Europe to integrate huge amounts of wind and solar quickly into the electricity mix, that change could happen very quickly, if they really wanted to.
Do you think as the pandemic fades and national economies revive, new solar and wind power installations will get back on track?
I hope so, but this is no guarantee. Europe will definitely be on track. But no other government is yet guaranteed to get on track for what we need to keep climate change to 1.5 or even 2 degrees. For example, China is still building coal plants, and even if Joe Biden gets in, will he be able to quickly pass his ambitious energy plan? The problem is even though wind and solar are cheap enough, they need clear political vision to fast-track all the hurdles for rapid roll-out — boring things like fast-track planning and grid access. And morally strong political vision today is lacking in so many countries right now.
Is Russia mostly ignoring solar power and wind power?
Well, climate isn’t exactly top of Russia’s agenda, and nor are free markets, so wind and solar aren’t getting their day yet. But Russia is really one of the few places in the world that has yet to run with wind and solar, so I’m not losing too much sleep on it.