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Wind and solar are ‘the fastest-growing sources of electricity in history’

New analysis from Ember’s advisory team shows that wind and solar power are growing faster than any other source of electricity in history.

They say they are now growing fast enough to exceed rising demand, meaning fossil fuel electricity generation and emissions will peak this year.

As a result, in its latest annual review of global electricity data, Ember states that “a new era of decline in fossil fuel production is upon us.”

The analysis shows that renewable energy sources will cover a record 30% of global electricity demand in 2023, and emissions from this sector would have already peaked were it not for the record decline in demand for hydropower.

The increase in the use of wind and solar energy is hampering the growth in the use of fossil fuels, which without them would be 22% higher in 2023, Ember says. This would add approximately 4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) to annual global emissions.

However, the development of clean electricity sources must accelerate to meet the global goal of tripling renewable energy by 2030, says Ember.

Achieving this target would almost halve emissions from the electricity sector by the end of the decade and put the world on a path consistent with the 1.5°C climate target set out in the Paris Agreement.

Pure performance improvement

Ember says that in 2023, more than twice as much new electricity generated from solar power will be added globally than from coal.

According to Ember, the share of solar energy in the global energy mix has reached 5.5%, up from 4.6% in 2022. The share of wind energy has remained stable at 7.8% (2,304 terawatt hours, TWh).

No other source of electricity generation has ever grown from 100 TWh per year to 1,000 TWh faster than solar and wind, Ember says. It took only eight and 12 years respectively, as shown in the figure below.

This is well ahead of gas production – 28 years, coal – 32 years and hydropower – 39 years. (Nuclear power also rose from 100 TWh to 1,000 TWh in 12 years, as Ember’s figure shows, but fell faster than wind power).

Global development of electricity generation technologies by technology (TWh), showing the time needed to develop key technologies from 100 TWh to 1,000 TWh. source: Ember.

In response to Ember’s report, Dr. Hannah Ritchie, deputy editor of Our World in Data, says in a statement:

“The main headline of the 2023 Ember Review is that the world sees a bright future for solar energy. It consistently breaks records and maintains its position as the fastest-growing power source in history. This is not only due to the need to transition to clean energy, but also its exciting economic aspects in the form of constantly falling prices. There are early signs that a peak in emissions in the energy sector is imminent. To quickly reduce emissions, faster development of low-emission energy will be needed, especially as countries electrify transport, heating and industry.”

Despite increases in solar and wind capacity in 2023, production grew slower than expected, reaching 513 TWh, a slight decline from the 517 TWh added in 2022.

Solar generation growth lagged the record high additional capacity growth of 36% due to lower solar radiation levels in 2023, especially in China, as well as underreporting of solar generation in some countries. This is expected to be temporary, Ember notes.

In the case of wind energy, for the first time since 2001, there was a decrease in generation by 9.1 TWh, or 2.1%. Ember says weak wind conditions have pushed load factors to their lowest levels in five years.

Additionally, higher costs slowed the expansion of wind power capacity as developers were forced to delay or cancel projects. The Wall Street Journal, for example, suspended more than $30 billion in investments as at least 10 offshore wind projects in the U.S. and Europe experienced delays.

For other renewable energy sources, the share of hydropower in the electricity mix fell by 0.6 percentage points to 14.3% of the global electricity mix, Ember reports. It remains the world’s largest source of clean energy, but its share in the mix is ​​now the lowest since at least 2000, and wind and solar combined are just 1 percentage point lower at 13.4% (3,935 TWh).

This is despite the fact that, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), 7 GW of new hydropower capacity will come online in 2023.

Ember previously estimated there would be a 0.4% reduction in global power sector emissions in 2023, but this was prevented by a decline in hydropower production. Instead, emissions from the energy sector increased by 1% as the water shortage from hydropower plants was mostly covered by coal.

Wind and solar power have increased from 0.2% of the global electricity mix in 2000 to 13.4% in 2023. Over the past year, their share has increased by another 1.5 percentage points, compared to 11.9% in 2022

Demand is reaching record levels

While wind and solar power were growing rapidly, global electricity demand also reached record levels in 2023, with demand increasing by 627 TWh, Ember reports. This is equivalent to adding all of Canada’s demand (607 TWh), e.g.

With wind and solar energy increasing by 513 TWh in 2023, nuclear energy by 46 TWh and hydropower demand decreasing by 88 TWh, the remaining increase in demand was met by increased consumption of fossil fuels.

This continued a trend in recent years in which the gap between clean energy growth and rapidly growing demand was covered by increasing electricity production from fossil fuels.

Moreover, last year’s demand growth was lower than the average in recent years and increased by 2.2%. This was the result of a clear decline in demand from OECD countries, including the USA (-1.4%) and the European Union (-3.4%).

Elsewhere, electricity demand was growing rapidly in China, by almost 7%. This was equivalent to the total increase in global demand in 2023, notes Ember.

Looking ahead, demand is likely to grow even faster as the use of electricity increases. The report shows that more than half of the global increase in electricity demand in 2023 was due to the increase in the number of electric vehicles (EV), heat pumps, electrolyzers, air conditioning and data centers.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), almost 14 million electric vehicles were registered worldwide in 2023, bringing the total number of vehicles on the road to 40 million. This means that electric car sales last year were 3.5 million higher than in 2022, an increase of 35% year-on-year.

Ember forecasts that electricity demand will accelerate significantly in the future, with an expected increase of 968 TWh in 2024. Even faster growth could be expected on a path that stays below 1.5°C under the IEA’s “NZE” scenario, it notes.

However, clean electricity production is expected to grow even faster, with wind, solar and other clean energy sources adding an estimated 1,300 TWh in 2024, as shown in the chart below.

The report says this would mean more than doubling the increase in 2023 (493 TWh) due to expected improvements in the US under the Inflation Control Act and the reversal of short-term factors such as last year’s water drought.

As a result, Ember estimates that fossil fuel energy production will decline by 333 TWh, or 2%, in 2024. More importantly, Ember argues that the rise of clean energy makes continued declines in fossil fuel use in the energy sector “inevitable” – which means a steady decline in associated emissions.

Past and expected future growth in electricity demand (light blue), demand under the IEA Pathway 1.5C (NZE, dark blue), and generation from clean energy sources including solar, wind, hydro and nuclear (green), terawatt hours. source: Ember.

Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and founder of Global Optimism, said in a press statement:

“The era of fossil fuels has reached its necessary and inevitable expiration date, as these findings clearly demonstrate. This is a critical turning point: outdated technologies of the last century can no longer compete with exponential innovations and declining cost curves in renewable energy and storage. It will be better for all of humanity and the planet on which we depend.”

Tripling renewable energy and what’s next

At the UN climate conference COP28 in Dubai in 2023, all countries agreed to contribute to tripling global renewable energy capacity by 2030, which was considered a “key” step towards a 1.5°C temperature increase.

While the COP28 outcome did not include numerical targets, Ember says tripling renewable energy would mean adding 14,000 TWh of annual renewable energy production by 2030 compared to 2022 levels. In 2022, renewables generated 8,599 TWh of 28,844 TWh of electricity generated worldwide.

Taking into account the growing demand for electricity, this tripling would help reduce fossil fuel production by 6,570 TWh, or 37%. Since the brunt of this reduction will be borne by highly polluting coal-fired energy, emissions from the energy sector will fall even faster – by 45% in 2030, he says.

As the chart below shows, the expansion of renewable energy has significantly slowed the development of fossil fuels.

After recording average annual growth of 3.5% over the decade 2004–2013, fossil fuel production only increased by an average of 1.3% in the decade to 2023.

In 2023, fossil fuel production was 22% lower than in the absence of solar and wind energy. Ember notes that between 2015 and 2023, wind and solar combined to avoid more than 4 Gt of CO2 emissions.

Global electricity production from fossil fuels (black), wind and solar (green) and other clean energy technologies (blue) in 2000–2023 in TWh. source: Ember.

Reaching the tripling target would mean that by 2030 around 60% of the world’s electricity supply would come from renewable sources.

This would mean a radical departure from current shares of renewable energy sources. In 2023, 102 countries had a share of renewable energy generation of 30% or more, up from 98 in 2022. However, in 2023, only 69 countries had a share above 50%.

Meeting the triple target would help put “the world on a path aligned with the 1.5°C climate target,” Ember says.

Ember’s Director of Global Insights, Dave Jones, says in a statement:

“We already know the key factors that are helping countries unlock the full potential of solar and wind energy. An unprecedented opportunity opens up for countries that decide to lead the future of clean energy.

Teaser image: Willtron, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1726534