Renewable energy continues to grow at a prodigious rate, but are the tremendous advances we are seeing enough to keep us from exceeding the upper-temperature threshold limits?
Green energy has been steadily growing and in 2022, it grew even faster. According to the IEA, global renewable electricity generation increased by 295 gigawatts in 2021 and added another 320 gigawatts in 2022. Renewable sources of energy increased by more than 8.47 percent last year compared to 2021.
Renewables were able to meet the significant increase in energy demand in 2022. Due largely to the uptick in clean energy, coal use has not increased as much as many had forecasted. The growth of renewable energy has steadily outpaced predictions and this is especially true in 2022.
Renewables like solar and wind continue to see increases in both their capacity and their competitiveness. Solar and wind generated a record-setting 700 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2022 which was around 67 percent (460 TWh) of total renewable electricity generation last year. These two renewable energy juggernauts are on track to become the largest source of global electricity by 2025. Solar is expected to be the largest single source of power capacity by 2027. Despite droughts, global hydropower output was also up in 2022 compared to 2021, contributing over one-fifth of the growth in renewable power.
While 2022 was a good year for sustainable energy, 2023 is expected to be even better. One-third of the world’s electricity is expected to come from renewables by 2024. The IEA predicts that renewables will account for 90 percent of energy growth over the next five years and all the expansion after that. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), 90 percent of the world’s electricity will come from renewable sources by mid-century.
The IEA anticipates that global renewable power capacity will grow by 2,400 gigawatts (GW) over the 2022-2027 period. Total renewable energy capacity is expected to double in the next five years which amounts to as much clean energy as was deployed in the last two decades. To put this number in context, this is an amount of energy equivalent to the entire power capacity of China.
Reducing Emissions with Renewable Energy: A Path to a Sustainable Future
Global energy-related CO2 emissions were 33.4 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2019, in 2020 they fell more than 5 percent to 31.5 Gt in 2020 representing the largest annual percentage decline since World War II. In 2021 energy-related CO2 emissions grew to 33.3 and in 2022 they grew again to 36.6 Gt. Although carbon emissions did increase in 2022, they did not do so at anywhere near the level that many had predicted.
In 2022 CO2 emissions from the global power sector carbon fell in Europe despite higher coal emissions, Last year EU emissions were at their lowest levels in at least 3 decades. Even in coal-dependent China, CO2 emissions remained flat in 2022 thanks in part to the deployment of solar and wind energy.
Emissions are rising because of increased demand, but renewables have averted 600 million tonnes of CO2, which is roughly equivalent to taking 100 million fossil fuel-powered cars off the road. The IEA concludes renewables contained the rise in global CO2 emissions and predicts that clean energy will help US emissions to decline after they peak in 2025.
Global Shift towards Renewable Energy: A Look at Adoption Around the World
Vietnam and the Netherlands led the world in renewable energy growth in 2022, and the major high-emitting countries outpaced expectations. The IEA states that the world’s largest emitters China, the US, and India are implementing policies and market reforms that are growing renewables at a faster pace than expected.
In the US renewables produced more energy than coal for the first time in 2022. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), 20 percent of all electricity in the US came from a combination of hydropower, wind, and solar. Another 19 percent of the nation’s electricity supply came from emissions-free nuclear power.
In 2022, Americans turned to solar in record numbers. according to BloombergNEF, residential solar installations soared to 5.6 gigawatts last year, which is three times more than commercial solar installations. As illustrated by states like Pennsylvania, solar power is an increasingly important part of the energy supply of US schools.
In 2022, the EU moved faster to build out renewable energy infrastructure than anyone thought possible. According to a report by SolarPower Europe, in 2022, the EU added 41.4 GW of solar power representing an increase of 47 percent compared to 2021.
Renewables made up 46 percent of Germany’s power consumption in 2022 and the approval of a €28 billion ($30.4 billion USD) wind and solar plan puts the country on track to get 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030.
The EU is incorporating a variety of renewable energy initiatives including putting solar panels on all its buildings. In total, the EU expects to add around 50 gigawatts of renewable capacity in 2023. Some EU countries are aiming for 100 percent clean power by 2030 while the block as a whole is working to get more than 80 percent of their energy from clean sources by 2030.
The UK broke wind energy production records in 2022. The UK’s record-breaking investments in renewables generated up to 11 gigawatts of energy last year allowing 12 million homes to move away from gas and reduce their energy bill by as much as 75 percent.
Greece now gets almost half of its electricity from renewable sources and the island of Sardinia is looking at increasingly important community renewable power projects. Solar is a huge part of the energy picture, it is being used in rural contexts in developing countries.
The massive Bhadla Solar Park in India will be the largest solar farm in the world. the Indian village of Modhera became the first in India to get all of its power from solar. This is not only reducing emissions it is slashing the costs of energy.
China’s $546 billion USD investment in renewables is a game changer. China’s solar-generated electrical power increased by 30 percent in 2022. When completed, the Huaneng Power International project will be the largest floating PV project in the world. It is capable of producing 43.3 gigawatts of power which is enough energy to power 13 million homes (or a country the size of Norway).
Renewables are not just growing, their design and construction are becoming more innovative to increase efficiency and lessen their footprint. The European Space Agency (ESA) is exploring the prospect of generating power with the help of a 2 km-long solar panel array orbiting the Earth. The concept could generate as much solar power as a nuclear plant.
Researchers at Standard University took one step closer to solving the intermittency problem with a solar panel concept that can generate energy on overcast days and even at night. Scientists have also harnessed plant photosynthesis to generate energy by turning a living plant into a bio-solar cell.
To help minimize waste and diminish the footprint of wind energy, engineers at the University of Michigan developed a turbine resin that could be recycled to make a wide range of products from countertops to car tail lights and power tools.
Clean power benefits from Russia’s war in Ukraine
The growth of renewables is being driven by ongoing price declines, and increasing political will to slash climate change-causing emissions. It is also being driven by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. European renewables made up for the shortfalls in Russian gas and the speed at which they took up the energy slack surprised many experts.
Putin provoked an unprecedented global energy crisis, but rather than stall climate efforts, as many had predicted, the war has resulted in a seismic shift in energy policy. After almost one full year, we can say with considerable confidence that Russia’s heinous act of aggression has accelerated the growth and development of renewables as countries look to alternative sources of energy.
Putin’s efforts to weaponize fossil fuels have been crushed by renewable energy. As Yale University’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian explain in a Foreign Affairs article, “Putin’s moment of maximum leverage has passed uneventfully, and, as we correctly forecast last October, the biggest victim of Putin’s gas gambit was Russia itself. Putin’s natural gas leverage is now nonexistent, as the world—and, most importantly, Europe—no longer needs Russian gas.”
Those who expected the EU would abandon its climate commitments because of Putin’s war in Ukraine were proven wrong. What we are seeing instead is an accelerated shift toward clean power sources. Now more than ever Europe is at the forefront of an energy trend that is moving away from fossil fuels.
The expedited ascendency of clean energy is a direct result of Putin’s energy crisis. Despite being one of the most savage and brutal events in modern history. the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest World Energy Outlook report says the global energy crisis caused by the war, is accelerating the transition to renewables and fundamentally changing power production. The IEA’s Renewables 2022 report, reiterates the point stating that Putin’s war provoked an energy crisis that drove unprecedented renewable energy growth last year.
The scale of the devastation from this unprovoked carnage is hard to countenance. It has killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians including hundreds of children. Russia’s invasion also averted 20 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2022 and renewables emerged as a potent weapon. Last year fossil fuel-exporting autocratic regimes were put on notice, as renewables proved to be both an alternative power source and a way of denying funding to tyrannical regimes.
Are we producing enough green energy to combat climate change?
We should take a moment to realize just how far renewables have come. The benefits of this emissions-free power source include increasing energy security and energy independence. Despite ever-increasing power demand, renewables have made the worst-case scenarios for global temperature rise increasingly unlikely. Although this is good news, it in no way suggests that we are winning the battle against climate change. We are making progress and we have seen prodigious growth but it is not enough.
In the last couple of years, renewable energy increased its share of electrical energy production by an average of 2 percent per year, and at this rate, it will take 33 years to get close to 100 percent. So while renewables are steadily eating away at the dominance of fossil fuels, they are doing so at a pace that is just not fast enough.
The IEA has stated that to meet the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement, the energy sector needs to hit net zero globally by 2040 which means wind and solar power need to grow 20 percent each year. Last year set a record but we will need to more than double their growth rate if we are to have a chance of keeping global temperatures within prescribed limits.
Global emissions from fossil fuels hit a record high in 2022 and the major oil companies posted record profits. The IEA says that under prevailing policy settings we will see coal peak by the end of the decade and “a definitive peak for fossil fuels” by the mid-2030s.
To keep temperatures below the upper-temperature threshold, emissions need to be reduced by 45 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. This translates to a 7 percent annual reduction in C02 emissions in the next 8 years. The gulf between where we are and where we need to be is staggering. We are currently on track to generate 62 Gt of CO2 a year by 2030.
The importance of renewables cannot be overstated, they are central to our efforts to decarbonize energy, and we simply won’t be able to achieve the Paris objectives without them. Massively increasing the deployment of renewables has many benefits including reducing both air pollution and GHG emissions. Renewables may not be able to stop climate change but they can play a central role in minimizing adverse impacts. Clean energy provides green jobs, it is good for human health and economic sustainability, and it is also our best hope of averting catastrophe. Renewables are at the core of a suite of climate actions that can keep temperatures below the upper threshold temperature limits, but to do so we will need to radically increase our clean energy ambitions.