global electricity review
The Global Electricity Review 2021 says progress on moving energy generation away from coal is still not fast enough. Image: Pixabay.

Wind and solar power have driven a record drop in the use of coal-generated power, but only because the COVID-19 pandemic drove a drop in electricity usage says the Global Electricity Review 2021.

Global electricity demand fell slightly by 0.1% in 2020, the first decrease since 2009. This pause has already ended though. By December 2020 global electricity demand was already higher than it was in December 2019.

India’s demand had risen by 5%, the European Union by 2%, Japan by 3%, South Korea by 2%, Turkey by 3% and the United States by 2%.

Wind and solar generation rose 15% (+314TWh) in 2020. This meant that wind and solar produced almost a tenth (9.4%) of the world’s electricity last year, doubling from 4.6% in 2015.

Many G20 countries now get around a tenth of their electricity from wind and solar: India (9%), China (9.5%), Japan (10%), Brazil (11%), the US (12%) and Turkey (12%). Europe is leading the way, with Germany at 33% and the United Kingdom at 29%.

Climate and energy think tank Ember has released its annual Global Electricity Review 2021. Founded in 2008 as Sandbag to reform the EU carbon market, Ember re-branded in 2020 to mark a new global reach and laser focus on accelerating the electricity transition from coal to clean.

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Wind and solar power pushed coal to a record low

The use of coal-generated power fell a record 4% (-346TWh). This was similar to the rise in wind and solar power of 314TWh, more than the UK’s entire electricity production.

This dwarfed the aggregate changes across global electricity: demand fell 23TWh, gas and oil fell 12TWh. A rise in hydro of 94TWh was mostly countered by a fall of 104TWh of nuclear. In comparison, coal collapsed almost everywhere, with large falls in the US (-20%), EU (-20%) and even India (-5%).

Dave Jones, Ember global programme lead, said progress on moving energy generation away from coal is still not fast enough. “Despite coal’s record drop during the pandemic, it still fell short of what is needed. Coal power needs to collapse by 80% by 2030 to avoid dangerous levels of warming above 1.5 degrees. We need to build enough clean electricity to simultaneously replace coal and electrify the global economy. World leaders have yet to wake up to the enormity of the challenge,” Jones explained.

China ramping up coal-fired generation as its electricity demand grows

China’s electricity demand growth continued to outstrip the generation of clean electricity and their coal generation rose by 2% in 2020. China’s electricity demand was 33% higher in 2020 than in 2015, rising by more than all electricity demand in India during 2020.

Between 2015 and 2020, China’s fossil-free generation met only 54% of its rise in electricity demand, which means 46% was met by fossil fuel generation. That pushed China’s coal generation 19% higher in five years. China is now responsible for more than half (53%) of the world’s coal-fired electricity, up from 44% in 2015.

Muyi Yang, Ember senior electricity policy analyst, says China is struggling to curb its coal generation growth, despite some progress: “Fast-rising demand for electricity is driving up coal power and emissions. More sustainable demand growth will enable China to phase out its large coal fleet, especially the least efficient sub-critical coal units, and provide greater opportunity for the country to attain its climate aspirations.”

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Electricity demand rose 11% (+2,536 TWh) since 2015, but the increase in clean electricity generation (+2,107 TWh) didn’t keep up. That led to an increase in overall fossil generation: gas-fired electricity rose 11% (+562 TWh) and coal fell only 0.8% (-71 TWh).

This means power sector CO2 emissions were around 2% higher in 2020 than in 2015. Fossil-free electricity met only 54% of the rise in electricity demand in China, 57% in India and 37% in Indonesia. Meanwhile in Europe, and especially the US, coal’s fall was caused not only by a rise in clean electricity, but also a rise in gas generation. Of the 10% rise in global gas generation since 2015, half of that was in the United States.

You can read more about the Global Electricity Review online.