A New Era of Clean Power

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Last year marked a critical turning point in the global energy landscape. Fueled by the escalating crisis in Ukraine and soaring fossil fuel prices, governments worldwide began to re-evaluate their energy policies and strategies. As wind and solar reached a record 12% of global electricity in 2022, the world now stands at the cusp of a new era characterized by falling power-sector emissions and a steady shift toward decarbonization. But how fast emissions fall this decade is still to be determined, and governments and businesses need to now take bold, confident steps to get the job done. 

The Winds of Change

Ember published its fourth annual Global Electricity Review on Apr 12. This revealed that wind and solar electricity generation reached unprecedented heights in 2022, with solar generation growing by 24% and wind generation by 17%, compared with the previous year. The rapid expansion propelled the carbon intensity of global electricity generation to its lowest ever level at 436 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, signifying the cleanest electricity in history. With over 60 countries now generating more than 10% of their electricity from wind and solar sources, the momentum behind renewables is evident.

Despite record growth in wind and solar, power-sector emissions continued to rise in 2022, reaching an all-time high. However, it could have been worse: emissions would have been 20% even higher if the electricity from wind and solar had instead come from fossil fuels. More importantly, power-sector emissions are unlikely to ever be higher than they were in 2022.

Peaking Power Emissions 

We forecast that global power-sector emissions will fall in 2023 for the first time (outside of a recession), ushering in a new era of falling power-sector emissions. That’s because clean power growth is likely to exceed electricity demand growth in 2023, and that will lead to a small fall in fossil generation in 2023. In the coming years we expect much larger falls in fossil generation, as wind and solar continue to grow.

In the midst of the global gas crisis, there was a slight decline in global gas generation in 2022, representing the second fall in just three years. But coal generation saw a modest increase of 1.1%, while the closure of coal plants reached its lowest point in seven years as countries sought to maintain backup capacity. The coal power phasedown agreed at COP26 in 2021 has yet to manifest itself, but with the new era of falling power-sector emissions, we know it is coming soon. And, perhaps for the first time, the end of gas growth is also within sight.

The Way Forward

As we stand at this tipping point, it is crucial to ensure that wind and solar continue to maintain high growth rates throughout the decade. Beyond deployment, this will require investments in grid infrastructure, flexibility and market design, as well as a focus on integrating renewable energy sources into the power grid. Additionally, more growth is needed from other clean electricity sources like nuclear and hydro, and efforts must be made to improve efficiency.

A decarbonized electricity system should be the prime target for every economy worldwide, secured by 2035 in mature economies and by 2040 in the rest of the world. Electricity is currently the single biggest CO2 emitter, but we already have the technologies we need to make it the first sector to decarbonize. Clean electricity will then unlock economy-wide emissions cuts on the pathway to net zero by 2050. As heat pumps, electric vehicles and electrolyzers increase, we will see clean power beginning to replace fossil fuels across the entire energy economy, not just in the power sector.

The year 2022 will be remembered as a turning point in the world's transition to clean power. As wind and solar energy continue to grow, the responsibility is on governments, businesses and individuals to capitalize on this momentum and accelerate the shift toward a decarbonized, sustainable future. By embracing the potential of renewable energy and addressing the challenges that lie ahead, we can collectively work toward a greener, more resilient world.

Dave Jones is head of data insights at global energy think tank Ember. He previously worked at Sandbag on European coal phaseout policy, and for 13 years prior to that at a large European utility.

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