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The world generated a record 10% of its electricity from wind and solar in 2021 and clean sources accounted for 38% of total power supply — even more than coal.
That’s according to a report published on Wednesday by Ember. The independent climate think tank found that 50 countries were generating more than 10% of their power from wind and solar, with the fastest transformations happening in the Netherlands, Australia and Vietnam. Those countries have switched around a tenth of their power from fossil fuels to wind and solar in just the last two years.
Ten countries generated more than 25% of their power from wind and solar, led by Denmark at 52%.
The findings come as the world faces an energy crunch, both from the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic as well as from Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has forced countries, particularly in Europe, to seek alternative energy sources to Russian oil and gas.
The report found that solar and wind power could grow fast enough to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius above levels before industrialization, a threshold that scientists warn the world should stay below to avoid some of the more dramatic impacts of the climate crisis.
That would require the 10-year average compound growth rate of 20% to be maintained to 2030.
Solar generation rose 23% globally in 2021, while wind supply gained 14% over the same period. Together, both renewable sources accounted for 10.3% of total global electricity generation, up 1% from 2020, Ember’s data showed.
“If these trends can be replicated globally, and sustained, the power sector would be on track for 1.5 degree goal,” Ember said in their report.
The report included data for 209 countries covering the period 2000 to 2020. For 2021, it added data for 75 countries.
The main issue currently slowing the growth rate is on-the-ground constraints like permitting, and if governments want to supercharge growth they need to solve problems slowing deployment, Ember’s global lead Dave Jones said.
Despite gains in wind and solar, however, coal-fired power generation also saw its fastest growth since at least 1985, up 9% in 2021 at 10,042 terawatt hours (TWh), or 59% of the total demand rise, the report said.
This came in a year of rapid demand recovery, as 2021 saw the largest recorded annual increase of 1,414 TWh in global electricity demand in 2021, up 5.4% and the equivalent of adding a new India to global demand, they said.
“We’re getting closer to that break-even where wind and solar can cover new electricity demand, but we are still not quite there. If we maintain those growth rates we see, we will be there shortly,” Jones said.
Gas generation, on the other hand, increased by only 1% in 2021. But the overall increase in fossil fuel use pushed carbon dioxide emissions to an all-time high, above the record set in 2018.
The biggest demand rise for coal was recorded in China, up 13% in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019, the data showed.
The country relies largely on coal for power production, but also passed the one-tenth of power generation from wind and solar landmark for the first time in 2021 along with six other countries, the report said.
China “is installing not only record levels of wind and solar, but also installing record levels of clean electricity like hydro, nuclear and bioenergy which means their coal generation will start falling,” Jones said.
“What’s not clear is how quickly that will be,” he added.
China plans to continue to use coal as a vital part of its energy strategy, as it bids to balance economic stability with its longer-term climate goals.