Global Wind & Solar Review

Ember's review demonstrates how wind and solar are ready to lead the global coronavirus recovery.

Pete Tunbridge

7 July 2020 | 4 min read

Executive summary

Wind and solar are ready to lead the global coronavirus recovery

As countries start entering Covid-19 recovery phases, governments are presented with a unique opportunity to step up wind and solar investment.

How much of the world’s electricity came from just solar panels and wind turbines last year? Take a guess!

Wind and solar generated 8.2% of the world’s electricity in 2019. China, USA and India were very slightly above the global average. The EU leads the way, generating 18% of its electricity from wind and solar – more than double the global average – and as high as 55% in Denmark. Countries that you probably wouldn’t expect are also among the leaders: Australia 15%, Morocco 17%, and Uruguay at an impressive 38%. Globally, wind generated more than solar, with a split of 5% and 3% respectively. But solar is catching up, thanks to its rapid growth in the last few years.

The growth in wind and solar generation has happened quickly, more than doubling in just 5 years: from 3% of the world’s electricity demand in 2013, to 8% in 2019 (see graphic below). This rise in five percentage points has fed more-than-less directly into coal, reducing coal’s market share from 40% to 35% in just six years.

But we will need a lot more wind and solar – firstly, to meet the world’s growing demand for electricity, especially as we move to electric cars, and secondly to reduce CO2 emissions from coal power plants. Last year, coal power plants were responsible for nearly a third of all CO2 emitted from the burning of fossil fuels; so quickly replacing them is vital to minimising climate change.

In the IPCC’s meta-analysis to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees, they show coal must fall from 35% market share in 2019 to just 8% in the next 11 years. Most of the models say that the most economic way to do this is by increasing 1:1 wind and solar’s share from 8% today, to around 29% by 2030. All whilst global electricity demand rises by a quarter.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown us that our electricity grids are ready for even higher levels of wind and solar market share. Our analysis published in Carbon Brief shows European electricity demand fell by 14% year-on-year in April as lock-down measures kicked in, but coal took the brunt of that because it’s the most expensive fuel, falling by over 40%. This pushed the market share of wind and solar to new highs. The April average was 65% in Denmark, 45% in Germany and 41% in Greece. Yet the electricity grids continued to operate smoothly and reliably, even with these unprecedented levels of wind and solar generation.

 

Wind and solar are now the cheapest forms of electricity in many countries. The graphic below from BNEF shows that in 2020, wind and solar are the cheapest sources of new generation for two-thirds of the global population. Analysis is increasingly showing that wind and solar can save money across whole system costs. For example, this study published in Nature Communications, shows China power sector could save 10% by 2030, by building more renewables. It also shows a more aggressive scenario, capable of cutting power sector emissions by 80% by 2030, should politicians choose to be that ambitious.

The next section shows how countries rank in different regions of the world. In March 2020, Ember published our first annual Global Electricity Review, which provides free data by country by fuel, from 2000 to 2019, which we’ve used for the following graphics. We’d love for more people to use this data resource, which we will keep updated – let us know if you do!

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