Wind and solar energy are now the cheapest forms of power in two-thirds of the world, according to data compiled by BloombergNEF, but there remains a great divide between the wealthy and developing nations.
In its New Energy Outlook 2019, the research firm said the globe will be 50% powered by renewable energy by 2037, with countries such as Australia, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom anticipated to reach the 50% mark by 2029.
However, developing countries such as India, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines will not reach the halfway mark until 2039 or later.
In BloombergNEF’s comparisons, Malaysia is not expected to reach 50% renewable power until 2049.
The firm has credited “sweeping technological advances and more efficient manufacturing” as the reason for wind and solar’s increasingly important role in the global energy mix. However, this is also the reason for the growing divide.
“Wealthy nations can afford to turn their backs on coal, but it remains an easy fallback in countries where electricity is scarce, unreliable or unaffordable,” Bloomberg reported.
Cheapest power sources: 2014 to now
Ten years ago, when wind and solar were just 1% of the US’ energy mix, it would have seemed unrealistic to envision renewables replacing fossil fuels.
Yet, this April marked the first time that renewable energy supplied more power to the US grid than coal, showing that solar and wind have certainly stepped up to the plate.
BloombergNEF’s report compared the cheapest power around the world from five years ago to now.
In 2014, coal was listed as the cheapest form of power for most of the world, followed by gas, with wind energy only being the cheapest in Germany, Denmark and Uruguay.
Solar didn’t even make it on the list.
In 2019, wind energy is still regarded as the cheapest power for Germany, Denmark and Uruguay, along with nine other countries including the US, Canada and the UK.
Meanwhile, solar energy has topped the list as the cheapest energy technology in 2019 for Australia, Chile, Egypt, France, India, Israel, Italy, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain and the United Arab Emirates.
A handful of eastern European countries including Russia have recorded gas as the cheapest form of power in 2019, while coal’s list of countries has more than halved to mostly Asian nations including Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.
Low build costs spark renewables shift
Electricity generation has traditionally been the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, but since 2016, US power plants have given off less carbon dioxide than the nation’s transportation sector, Bloomberg reported.
According to the news wire, wind and solar farms are a major reason for the turnaround, with cheaper parts making these projects more economical to build than coal and gas plants across two-thirds of the world.
“Solar photovoltaic modules, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries are set to continue on aggressive cost reduction curves, of 28%, 14% and 18% respectively, for every doubling in global installed capacity,” New Energy Outlook 2019 lead analyst Matthias Kimmel said.
“By 2030, the energy generated or stored and dispatched by these three technologies will undercut electricity generated by existing coal and gas plants almost everywhere,” he added.
In the US alone, renewable plants are expected to greatly outnumber non-renewable plants by 2025, although they won’t yet have the same capacity level.
In addition, solar installers and wind technicians are already regarded as the two fastest-growing professions in the nation.
However, China remains the world’s biggest consumer of coal despite hosting the largest capacity of hydro, wind and solar power.
Likewise, coal plants are so cheap to run in Indonesia that the nation is forecast to almost double its coal generation over the next 25 years, Bloomberg reported.
Global growth trend
However, BloombergNEF has forecast that by 2050 two-thirds of the world will be run on zero-carbon energy, with wind and solar supplying 48% of global electricity by that time.
Specifically, solar is expected to rise from its current 2% of world electricity generation to 22% in 2050, while wind is anticipated to climb from today’s 5% to 26%.
Hydro is expected to see “very modest growth”, being constrained by resource availability, while BloombergNEF’s research shows nuclear staying “practically flat”.
In addition, the report found batteries, peakers and dynamic demand will help wind and solar reach more than 80% penetration in some markets.
“Around 359GW of batteries are added to the power system to help shift excess generation to times when the wind is not blowing and sun is not shining,” it stated.
According to the report, US$13.3 trillion (A$19.45 trillion) will be invested in new power generation assets over the next 32 years to 2050, with 77% (US$10.24 trillion) expected to go to renewables.
The majority of the investments will be in wind and solar, with US$843 billion estimated to go toward batteries.
This investment total will fund 15,145GW of new power plants between 2019 and 2050, of which 80% is zero carbon.