Renewable energy set to skyrocket globally, study says, but coal backers push back

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Global adoption of renewable energy shows no signs of slowing over the next 15 years, with nearly two-thirds of an expected $7.7 trillion in new investment going toward non-fossil power generation, according to new projections by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

In particular, major additions of solar and wind energy will continue to displace coal as a primary source of power generation across many of the world’s largest economies, while shale gas will remain a key factor in U.S. energy markets at least through 2024, BNEF said in the latest “2030 Market Outlook,” released this morning.

Overall, fossil fuels are expected to lose 20 percentage points in their market share over the next 16 years from 64 percent of global generation in 2013 to 44 percent in 2030, a decline driven mainly by the contraction of coal-fired power in developed countries, the analysis found.

That means natural gas, solar, wind, hydro, nuclear and other forms of energy will carry the lion’s share of new power generation over the next 16 years, during which total global generation capacity will jump from 5.58 terawatts (5,579 gigawatts) to 10.57 terawatts (10,569 gigawatts) in 2030.

“By 2030, the world’s power mix will have transformed: from today’s system with two-thirds fossil fuels to one with over half from zero-emission energy sources,” Bloomberg analysts said in the report, which relies on modeling of electricity market supply and demand, technology costs, and policy development in regions and countries around the world.

A ‘more bullish’ forecast for renewables

BNEF’s outlook, based on the work of 65 analysts over nine months of data collection, generally mirrors that of other forecasting agencies. But officials described it as “more bullish” on renewable energy due to Bloomberg analysts’ strong belief that costs for renewable energy will continue to fall over the coming years.

“What we are seeing is global CO2 emissions on track to stop growing by the end of next decade, with the peak only pushed back because of fast-growing developing countries, which continue adding fossil fuel capacity as well as renewables,” Michael Liebreich, chairman of BNEF’s advisory board, said in a statement.

Representatives of the fossil fuel industry, however, characterized the report as reflecting a particular view of the global energy sector. “Maybe Bloomberg’s analysts are drinking the same Kool-Aid that their anti-coal founder has been drinking,” Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said, referring to Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, climate activist and founder of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of BNEF.

Seb Henbest, BNEF’s regional head for Europe, Middle East and Africa, based in London, responded to critics, saying in an email that the analysis “is a conservative, bottom-up, country-by-country economic analysis of the evolving state of the power sector.

“Rather than dismiss and politicize our conclusions, the coal industry should study them to help quantify and better understand the risks and opportunities ahead of it,” he said.

BNEF notes that the Asia-Pacific region “has become the centre of global energy growth” and that Asian countries will install as much power capacity through 2030 as the rest of the world combined. Renewables are expected to account for two-thirds of total investment in new power projects in Asia, averaging $252 billion per year, and by 2030 renewables should account for 33 percent of all electricity generated in the region.

In Europe, wind energy and solar photovoltaics will become “the main driver of capacity additions,” and renewables will attract more than 75 percent of the projected $1.3 trillion invested in power generation over the 2013-2030 period, according to the analysis. Consumption of both coal and gas is expected to precipitously decline over the same period with coal falling from 19 percent to 8 percent of energy capacity and gas falling from 25 percent to 17 percent of capacity.

Natural gas constitutes ‘largest single slice’ in America

Bloomberg forecasts that public- and private-sector firms in the Americas will spend $1.3 trillion to add 943 GW of gross new power generation capacity by 2030, including for new and replacement power plants. More than half of that new capacity, 522 GW, will be built in the United States, while 341 GW will be added in Latin America and 80 GW in Canada.

The “largest single slice” of that future investment will be for new natural-gas-fired plants, at $314 billion, due to “the persistence of low natural gas prices in North America following the shale gas boom,” according to the report. Bloomberg projects that between 2013 and 2030, the U.S. gas-fired power plant fleet will grow by 134 GW of capacity.

Bloomberg also forecasts continued strong growth in the Americas for rooftop solar PV and onshore wind power with investment of $231 billion and $200 billion, respectively. Roughly 90 percent of all new solar power generation will occur in developing countries as they seek to meet rising power demand and begin to achieve economies of scale for large solar arrays.

Projections for coal are stark, however, with expected coal-fired power generation shrinking to 17 percent of all electricity generation in the Americas combined by 2030, down from 26 percent today. In the United States, coal-fired capacity is expected to shrink by 109 GW, “mainly due to being out-competed by gas and renewables,” BNEF said. But also because new U.S. regulations targeting emissions from coal plants, including recently announced carbon dioxide regulations, will make coal an less attractive fuel for power production.

“[Government] policy makes it all but impossible to build new coal in the U.S. and Canada,” the analysis states.

By contrast, other parts of the developing world will embrace the construction of new coal, gas and oil plants in part “to meet the increased power demand that comes with industrialization, and also to balance variable generation sources such as wind and solar.”

Henbest, BNEF’s London-based analyst, said that coal should maintain and even grow its market share over the near term in China and India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Turkey, South Africa and parts of Eastern Europe.

Yet even with those caveats, NMA’s Popovich argued that Bloomberg’s findings are skewed with respect to coal consumption.

He pointed to the recent “BP Statistical Review of World Energy,” which found that coal, while growing more slowly than before, is still the fastest-growing fossil fuel in the world.

“Coal’s share of global primary energy consumption reached 30.1 percent, the highest since 1970,” the BP PLC analysis said.

“If there was a World Cup for energy sources powering the global economy, coal would be crowned champion,” Popovich said.