Global coal-fired generation spikes in 2021, even as wind and solar reach new highs

Global coal-fired generation spikes in 2021, even as wind and solar reach new highs

Energize Weekly, September 28, 2022

The world recorded an unprecedent spike in coal-fired generation in 2021 – even as wind and solar generation also reached record levels, according to a report by Bloomberg NEF and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Total global power production was up 5.6 percent in 2021, and coal-fired power production jumped 8.5 percent.

“Three factors contributed to the coal surge: rebounding top-line electricity demand thanks to economic recovery, lower hydro generation due to droughts around the world and higher natural gas prices,” the report said.

The greater use of coal boosted carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector 7 percent in 2021 compared to 2020.

“New spikes in coal generation are a troubling sign for the economy, our health, and the fight against climate change,” Michael Bloomberg, the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Climate Ambition and Solutions and founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies, said in a statement.

Over two-thirds of markets with some coal capacity installed – about 52 countries – saw coal generation grow between 2020 and 2021. By comparison, from 2019 to 2020, coal usage rose in 27 markets.

India led the way with a 16 percent increase in coal power production, followed by the U.S. with a 14 percent rise and China with a 9 percent jump.

“Another coal generation spike is possible in 2022 as European nations seek short-term solutions to compensate for droughts and extremely high gas prices,” the report said.

Germany, for example, has this year reactivated 4.8 gigawatts (GW) of fossil-fuel power plants, two-thirds of the capacity is coal fired. Another 5.5 GW of coal could be online by the end of 2023 along with 4 GW of nuclear.

“Other European countries are expected to follow similar paths,” the report said.

China and India remain the leaders in building new coal-fired generating capacity. The two countries accounted for 83 percent of new coal additions in 2021. Between 2012 and 2021, China added 414 GW of coal, 62 percent of the total global install, while India added 107 GW.

Still, developed countries shut down 21 GW of coal-fired capacity in 2021, the most in a single year. Overall, fossil fuel-power plant additions in developed countries made up just 3 percent of new build. It was as much as 30 percent in 2017.

Even as coal-fired generation surged, wind and solar generation topped 10 percent of total generation for the first time and all zero-carbon sources of generation – renewables, hydro and nuclear – totaled over 10,000 terawatt-hours or nearly 40 percent of global power production.

“Wind’s contribution rose to 6.8 percent, up from just 0.7 percent a decade ago, while solar reached 3.7 percent up from virtually nothing in 2012,” the report said.

Wind and solar also account for three-quarters of the 364 GW of new capacity installed in 2021, with solar making up half of that new capacity. By contrast, growth in new coal-fired plants globally was the lowest in at least 15 years, and new fossil-fuel plants comprised only 14 percent of 2021 capacity additions.

“What occurs over the balance of this decade stands to be decisive in determining whether the world achieves a net-zero emissions path and policy mechanisms to address today’s energy challenges will influence how that future unfold,” the report said.

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