Report: World trending to hit 50% renewables, 11% coal by 2050

Bloomberg New Energy Finance released a new report this week that estimates how electricity generation will change out to 2050. The clean energy analysis firm estimates that in a mere 33 years, the world will generate almost 50 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, and coal will make up just 11 percent of the total electricity mix.

Add in hydroelectric power and nuclear energy, and greenhouse-gas-free electricity sources climb to 71 percent of the world’s total electricity generation. The report doesn’t offer a terribly bright future for nuclear, however, and after a period of contraction, the nuclear industry’s contribution to electricity generation is expected to level off.

Instead, falling photovoltaic (PV), wind, and battery costs will cause the dramatic shift in investment, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) notes. “PV and wind are already cheaper than building new large-scale coal or gas plants,” the 2018 report says. In addition, BNEF expects that more than $500 billion will be invested in batteries by 2050, with two-thirds of that investment going to installations on the grid and one-third of that investment happening at a residential level.

Gas and electric

The report also says that gas consumption will increase only very modestly. Gas use is projected to decline dramatically in Europe and increase in the US, China, and India. Everywhere, gas and batteries will play major roles in smoothing out the supply curves of renewable-heavy utilities.

This future scenario also includes electric vehicle (EV) growth. BNEF forecasts that EVs will add 3,461 terawatt-hours of electricity demand around the world by 2050. But the analysis firm expects that about half of this demand will occur dynamically, with the cars charging when renewable energy is plentiful.

Of course, all these predictions are made barring any future regulatory intervention from lawmakers. President Trump recently ordered the Department of Energy to use a wartime rule to keep coal and nuclear plants propped up despite their obvious unprofitability. That could throw a wrench into these projections if the administration goes ahead with it.

The latest BNEF report focuses on economic factors that are likely to influence the future energy market. The report combines the analysis of 65 researchers who have country- or technology-level expertise. Other reports seem to track with BNEF’s analysis, too. In 2017, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report on projections out to 2040 with largely similar results. Out to 2040, the IEA expects renewable additions to grid capacity to dwarf coal and nuclear additions, while gas additions keep a steady pace. The IEA also predicts that the rapid expansion of PV and wind energy in China and India will result in a world where 40 percent of electricity generation is renewable in 2040.

Is it enough?

The ultimate question remains: will this significant move to renewables be enough to mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change? The BNEF report states that if the economy behaves according to the model, global carbon emissions could peak as early as 2027 and decline 2 percent per year from there. Most of the impact here would be due to the retirement of coal in India and China.

Unfortunately, the report says that getting rid of all coal-fired power would not limit the world’s warming to 2°C—that is, the target warming ceiling specified in the Paris Agreement. To get close enough, BNEF says that the world would need a significant technology to “decarbonize gas at-scale” or some new technology that could replace the role of gas in the power generation sector. Though the latter might include a dramatic reduction in battery cost or a significant subsidization of nuclear power, a former option might be something like the NETPower plant, currently being tested in Texas, that captures carbon as soon as it’s made.

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