2017 was a great year for renewable energy. There was strong growth, particularly in the power sector—where solar photovoltaics and wind power added more net capacity than coal, natural gas, and nuclear power combined.
This year’s global status report on renewable energy from the Renewable Energy Policy Network (REN21), released last week, presents a sparkling picture of the progress being made by solar energy and wind power. Renewable power generating capacity saw its largest annual increase ever in 2017, raising total capacity by almost 9% over 2016. Overall, renewables accounted for an estimated 70% of net additions to global power capacity, primarily due to the continuing falling costs of utility-scale photovoltaic installations and large wind turbines. In the US, there were record breaking Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) signed for photovoltaic power—less than $24/MWh for a proposed 300 MW PV installation in Nevada. Check it out here.
Last week, BP released its annual Statistical Review of World Energy. Sub-titled:Two steps forward, one step back, it paints a much gloomier picture of the global energy situation—particularly with respect to coal. It’s available here.
So is the glass half full? Or is the glass half empty?
Depends who you ask.
First of all, nameplate capacity is not the same as production. Capacity factors for solar and wind are inherently low, so comparing only newly installed capacity (as the REN21 report does), tends to inflate the contribution of solar and wind compared to fossil fuels like natural gas. This is why Power Purchase Agreement contract prices—which refer to the price of the energy actually produced—are a much more important metric than installed capacity for photovoltaics and wind power.
Global energy demand grew relatively strongly in 2017. Primary energy consumption increased by 2.2 %, up from 1.2% in 2016. Natural gas, not renewable energy, was the largest source of energy growth, driven by coal-to-gas switching in China. But renewable energy was in second place–and gaining fast.
Then there’s the bad news. As usual, it comes in threes:
- Gains in energy efficiency slowed worldwide.
- Coal consumption increased for the first time in four years, and
- Carbon emissions increased after three years of almost no growth
Since we already knew that greenhouse gas emissions rose last year by about 1.6 % (this has been reported by several sources), it’s the news about coal which is the most shocking. Even BP’s Group Chief Executive was surprised—commenting: “This year’s Review looks at the energy mix within the power sector…which astonishingly shows that the share of coal in the sector is unchanged from 20 years ago.”
The chart below is from the BP review and clearly shows that coal is still the world’s dominant fuel for electrical power, with a share of 38% in 2017–almost as much as natural gas and hydroelectricity combined, which sit in second and third positions respectively.
While coal’s share has declined since 2013, it rose again last year, and it is now almost exactly where it was 20 years ago.
The graph also shows that renewable energy’s share in global generation is increasing exponentially. And when added together with hydropower—an even more dominant source of renewable energy—their share exceeds that of natural gas. These combined sources of renewable energy grew at an impressive 17.2 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
BP’s report has some interesting numbers for the USA and Canada. The tables below show the primary energy consumption for both countries for the last two years. The units are Million tonnes of oil equivalent.
In the US, renewable energy (including hydropower) grew strongly–while fossil fuels, on aggregate, actually declined. An encouraging trend. But in Canada the opposite is true. Renewable energy rose by a modest 3%; coal was down slightly, but oil and natural gas increased by over 7 %–more than twice as fast as renewables.
These numbers are more than just academic. They have implications for the emissions of greenhouse gases and climate change.
The Paris paradox
The BP review also reports on the emissions of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels.
In the US, between 2016 and 2017, emissions of CO2 fell from 5129.5 to 5087.7 million tonnes (Mt). A decrease of 0.5 percent. In Canada however, CO2 emissions rose from 543.0 Mt to 560.0 Mt over the same period—a whopping 3.4 percent rise and twice as much as the global average increase.
So here we have a strange paradox: the US announces that it will pull out of the Paris Agreement–but then strongly promotes renewable energy and actually reduces its emissions of CO2; whereas Canada insists it’s on track to meet its Paris Agreement targets—but continues to emit increasing amounts of greenhouse gases.
Over the last ten years, US emissions of CO2 have steadily declined—falling 1.2 % between 2006 and 2016. In Canada, CO2 emissions have increased: rising 0.3% over the same period.
So kudos to the US where, in spite of an adminstration that steadfastly rejects the science on climate change and is trying to prop up coal and nuclear energy, many states are making solid progress in transtioning to renewable energy and reducing emissions from fossil fuels. On the other hand, Canada is not just lagging behind—it is making absolutely no progress in reducing its emissions and is seemingly thumbing its nose at its Paris Agreement targets.
So in Canada, we got the one-step-back bit down pretty good. We’re still working on the two steps forward.
Notes: The comments by Bob Dudley, BP’s Group Chief Executive, about coal can be accessed here More about Canada’s failure to meet its mandatory emission targets can be found on this website; See the post : Canada’s Paris Agreement targets look unattainable. Also note that the emissions discussed above are only for CO2, whereas Canada’s international targets are defined in terms of greenhouse gases–which include methane, nitrous oxide and the trace gases. Given that Canada’s production of oil and gas is increasing–particularly from the oil sands, it is almost certain that emissions of methane are also on the rise.