Global Electricity Review 2021

Ember's annual review reveals that wind and solar drove a record fall in coal in 2020, but only because the pandemic pressed pause on rising electricity demand.

Dave Jones

Global Programme Lead

29 March 2021 | 12 min read

Highlights

-0.1%


Global electricity demand fell slightly in 2020

+15%


Wind and solar generation rose by 15%

-4%


Coal fell a record 4%

Executive summary

Wind and solar drive a record fall in coal in 2020

But only because the pandemic paused rising electricity demand

  • 01


    Pandemic paused electricity demand growth

    Global electricity demand fell slightly (-0.1%) in 2020, the first fall since 2009. But this pause has already ended: by December 2020, electricity demand was already higher than in December 2019 (India +5%, EU +2%, Japan +3%, South Korea +2%, Turkey +3%, US +2%).

  • 02


    Wind and solar rose to supply almost a tenth of global electricity

    Wind and solar generation rose robustly in 2020 by 15% (+314 TWh). This meant that wind and solar produced almost a tenth (9.4%) of the world’s electricity last year, doubling from 4.6% in 2015. Many G20 countries now get around a tenth of their electricity from wind and solar: India (9%), China (9.5%), Japan (10%), Brazil (11%), the US (12%) and Turkey (12%). Europe is leading the way, with Germany at 33% and the United Kingdom at 29%. Indonesia, Russia and Saudi Arabia still have near-zero.

  • 03


    Wind and solar helped push coal power to a record fall

    Coal fell a record 4% (-346 TWh). This was similar to the rise in wind and solar power of 314 TWh, more than the UK’s entire electricity production. This dwarfed the aggregate changes across global electricity: demand fell 23 TWh, gas and oil fell 12 TWh. A rise in hydro of 94 TWh was mostly countered by a fall of 104 TWh of nuclear. In comparison, coal collapsed almost everywhere, with large falls in the US (-20%), EU (-20%) and even India (-5%).

  • 04


    China was the only G20 country with a large increase in coal generation

    China’s coal generation rose by 2% in 2020. That was because electricity demand growth continued to outstrip new clean electricity. China’s electricity demand was 33% higher in 2020 than in 2015, rising by more than all electricity demand in India in 2020. Across those five years, China’s fossil-free generation met only 54% of the rise in electricity demand, so 46% was met from fossil generation. That pushed China’s coal generation 19% higher in five years. China is now responsible for more than half (53%) of the world’s coal-fired electricity, up from 44% in 2015.

  • 05


    Global power sector emissions were still higher than in 2015

    Electricity demand rose 11% (+2536 TWh) since 2015, but the increase in clean electricity generation (+2107 TWh) didn’t keep up. That led to an increase in overall fossil generation: gas-fired electricity rose 11% (+562 TWh) and coal fell only 0.8% (-71 TWh). As a result, power sector CO2 emissions were around 2% higher in 2020 than in 2015. Fossil-free electricity met only 54% of the rise in electricity demand in China, 57% in India and 37% in Indonesia. Meanwhile in Europe, and especially the US, coal’s fall was caused not only by a rise in clean electricity, but also a rise in gas generation. Of the 10% rise in global gas generation since 2015, half of that was in the United States.

Progress is nowhere near fast enough. Despite coal’s record drop during the pandemic, it still fell short of what is needed. Coal power needs to collapse by 80% by 2030 to avoid dangerous levels of warming above 1.5 degrees. We need to build enough clean electricity to simultaneously replace coal and electrify the global economy. World leaders have yet to wake up to the enormity of the challenge.

Dave Jones Global Programme Lead, Ember

Despite some progress, China is still struggling to curb its coal generation growth. Fast-rising demand for electricity is driving up coal power and emissions. More sustainable demand growth will enable China to phase out its large coal fleet, especially the least efficient sub-critical coal units, and provide greater opportunity for the country to attain its climate aspirations.

Dr Muyi Yang Senior analyst, Ember

India has started its clean electricity transition. India now needs to ramp up wind and solar considerably in the next decade to both replace coal and meet rising electricity demand. India has the opportunity to ensure that coal generation doesn’t see a resurgence after the last two years of coal falling.

Aditya Lolla Senior analyst, Ember

G20 deep dives

Tracking the electricity transition in the world's major economies

Argentina


Download Argentina report (English / Español)

Argentina’s electricity transition yields promising results, but risks halting just as it began. Wind and solar generation accelerated, but renewables expansion has stalled since 2018.

Australia


Download Australia report (English)

Australia remains heavily reliant on fossil generation despite the recent wind and solar boom. Australia’s electricity ranks fifth most fossil-intensive in the G20.

Brazil


Download Brazil report (English / Português)

Wind and solar are meeting Brazil’s rising electricity demand, but this must accelerate, or Brazil risks going backwards in its transition from fossil fuels to clean electricity.

Canada


Download Canada report (English)

Canada’s coal generation is falling at half the rate of the US and EU, defying the global trend as its electricity transition slows down.

China


Download China report (English / 中文)

China was the only G20 country to see a large increase in coal generation in 2020. The country’s increased electricity demand outpaced new clean electricity, leading to a rise in coal power.

European Union


Download EU report (English)

The EU leads on wind and solar electricity, with double the world average share. The EU’s electricity transition is giving valuable insights into how quickly the world can transition to clean electricity.

France


Download France report (English / Français)

France’s fossil fuel use is the lowest in the G20. The country’s coal generation has declined by 64% since 2015, but fossil use has actually risen due to an increase in fossil gas.

Germany


Download Germany report (English / Deutsch)

Germany tops the G20 for wind and solar. But Germany still generates 44% of its power from fossil fuels, more than the UK and Canada.

India


Download India report (English)

India’s wind and solar generation tripled since 2015. But will it keep pace with rising electricity demand to prevent a coal resurgence?

Indonesia


Download Indonesia report (English / Bayasa Indonesia)

Indonesia defies the global trend with more coal in the generation-mix. Slow growth in clean electricity means Indonesia has increased its reliance on coal as electricity demand rises.

Italy


Download Italy report (English / Italiano)

Italy’s deployment of wind and solar has stagnated. The country’s wind and solar growth since 2015 is the sixth lowest in the G20.

Japan


Download Japan report (English / 日本語)

Japan’s coal generation fell only by 1% in 2020. Its solar spree helped cut fossil generation, but Japan’s electricity transition has a long way to go to phase-out coal.

Mexico


Download Mexico report (English / Español)

Mexico tops G20 in reducing coal last year, but three quarters of electricity is still from fossil fuels. Falling demand due to the Covid-19 pandemic prompts halving of coal generation.

Russia


Download Russia report (English / русский)

Russia sticks with fossil fuels, as G20 switches to clean power. A step change in renewable capacity growth is needed to drive coal and gas out of the electricity mix.

Saudi Arabia


Download Saudi Arabia report (English / العربية)

Saudi Arabia keeps promising an electricity transition, but there is near-zero progress so far. The Kingdom continues to rely entirely on gas and oil for its electricity, but the first signs of a transition might be on the horizon.

South Africa


Download South Africa report (English)

South Africa tops the G20 for reliance on coal power. The country must embrace cheap renewables to exit its electricity crisis and phase out coal.

South Korea


Download South Korea report (English / 한글)

More of South Korea’s electricity was generated from fossil fuels in 2020 than in 2015. South Korea’s electricity transition is lagging behind the rest of the world.

Turkey


Download Turkey report (English / Türkçe)

Turkish coal generation fell for a second consecutive year. Two years of stagnating electricity demand growth, and increased wind and solar generation, put coal in reverse.

United Kingdom


Download UK report (English)

The UK tops the G20 for wind’s share of power generation. Wind generation is rapidly replacing coal, which is declining faster in the UK than any other G20 country.

United States


Download US report (English)

The US is responsible for half of the rise in global gas generation since 2015. Clean generation only partly made up for coal’s staggering fall since 2015.

Conclusion

Global electricity transition off track for 1.5C

The global electricity transition is on a crash course with climate targets.

Clean electricity is not yet being built quickly enough to keep pace with rising electricity demand. Wind and solar have provided the majority of the growth in clean electricity, with hydro and nuclear generation barely increasing. But even as wind and solar have risen to nearly a tenth of world electricity, their growth has slowed in recent years. This slow pace and lack of ambition is locking in reliance on fossil fuels.

2019 and 2020 bucked the trend as electricity demand temporarily slowed, which led to two record drops in coal generation. But even that wasn’t enough to put the world on target. Electricity demand will undoubtedly pick up again soon, especially as the world looks to electrify all the sectors still relying on fossil fuels.

We can’t let “mid-century net-zero targets” distract from the immediate need to focus on a quick transition out of burning coal for electricity.

Supporting Material


Downloads


Methodology

Introduction

This annual report analyses electricity data from every country in the world to give the first accurate view of the global electricity transition in 2020. It aggregates generation data by fuel by country from 2000. 68 countries comprising 90% of world electricity generation have full-year data to 2020 and have formed the basis of an estimate for changes in worldwide generation. All remaining countries have full data as far as 2019. G20 countries, which comprise 84% of world electricity generation, each have a separate in-depth country analysis.

Definitions

Generation data is mapped into nine generation types. More information on mapping for different sources and countries can be viewed below. For the purpose of analysis these generation types are aggregated into different groupings as follows

 

For the purposes of this report, renewables are classified in line with the IPCC and include bioenergy. However, the climate impact of bioenergy is highly dependent on the feedstock, how it was sourced and what would have happened had the feedstock not been burnt for energy. The current EU bioenergy sustainability criteria do not sufficiently regulate out high-risk feedstocks and therefore electricity generation from bioenergy cannot be automatically assumed to deliver similar climate benefits to other renewables sources (such as wind and solar) over timescales relevant to meeting the commitments of the Paris Agreement. For more information please see Ember’s reports: The Burning Issue (June 2020) and Playing with Fire (December 2019).

Overview

Historical data

Data from the United States Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) international data browser forms the backbone of this report. With the exception of ChinaIndiaEU-27 and the United States, all data from 2000-2019 is taken from this source. For some generation types in non-OECD countries, 2019 data had not yet been published by the EIA. Where available, we used national data to estimate these values, otherwise, the average change for that generation type seen over 2015-2018 was added onto the 2018 generation value.

Thermal disaggregation

EIA international data does not disaggregate generation from fossil fuels. This was performed by Ember using two methods. If possible, the split between fossil fuels was estimated using the ratios of fossil generation types in BP’s statistical review of world energy. Fossil generation was disaggregated for any remaining countries by using the capacity split by fossil fuel type, taken from the WRI’s global power plant database.

2020 data

Data for 2020 is estimated using national sources. The year-on-year changes in generation for each fuel type from these sources are added onto the historical 2019 data to obtain a value for 2020. Data sources for Argentina, Canada, Ecuador, Kazakhstan and Russia provide no disaggregation of thermal generation – for these countries, estimates of the split between different generation types were made using the IEA’s monthly electricity generation statistics and BP’s statistical review of world energy.

World data

World data for 2000-2019 is the sum of all country data. World data for 2020 is estimated by summing generation for all countries where we have 2019 and 2020 data. Together this comprises 90% of global generation. The percentage changes in each fuel type from 2019 to 2020 are then applied to the world generation data for 2019, to create an estimate of global generation in 2020.


Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements

Report design by Designers for Climate

Thank you to all peer reviewers

  • Roberto Kishinami, Energy Portfolio Coordinator at Institute for Climate and Society (iCS)
  • Xunpeng Shi, President of the International Society for Energy Transition Studies
  • A Prof. Peng Wang, Guangzhou Institute of Energy Conversion, Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • A Prof. Kaveh Khalilpour, University of Technology Sydney (UTS)
  • Philipp Litz, Project Manager, Agora Energiewende
  • Garima Vats (TERI)
  • Han Phoumin, Senior Energy Economist, Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA)
  • Fabby Tumiwa, Executive Director, Institute for Essential Services Reform (IESR)
  • T.M. Indra Mahlia, Distinguished Professor, University of Technology Sydney (UTS)
  • Michele Governatori, Ecco
  • Jorge Villarreal Padilla, Director de Política Climática, Iniciativa Climática De México
  • Rodrigo Palacios Saldaña, Investigador asociado, Iniciativa Climática De México
  • Sonja Risteska
  • Reza FathollahZadeh Aghdam, Assistant Professor of Energy Economics, Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), Oman
  • Jesse Burton, E3G / University of Cape Town
  • Joojin Kim and Gahee Han, Solutions for Our Climate (SFOC).
  • Bengisu Özenç, Director, SEFIA
  • Christine Shearer, Global Energy Monitor