By Nick Cunningham
The clean energy revolution is unfolding even faster than previously thought, which will have massive ramifications not just for the solar and wind industry, but also for the fading fortunes of old King Coal.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) published its “New Energy Outlook” (NEO), with renewable energy forecasts through 2040. BNEF says that the costs of wind and solar are falling rapidly, and the transition to cleaner energy will be more significant than expected. “This year’s report suggests that the greening of the world’s electricity system is unstoppable, thanks to rapidly falling costs for solar and wind power, and a growing role for batteries, including those in electric vehicles, in balancing supply and demand,” said Seb Henbest, BNEF’s lead author of the NEO 2017.
Solar is already cost-competitive with coal and natural gas in parts of Europe and the U.S., and solar will become cheaper than fossil fuels even in China, India, Brazil and Mexico by 2021. “These tipping points are all happening earlier and we just can’t deny that this technology is getting cheaper than we previously thought,” said Henbest
Between now and 2040, the world will invest $10.2 trillion in new electricity generation – and renewables will capture three-quarters of that total. As a result, by 2040, wind and solar will account for 48 percent of the total installed electricity capacity around the world, up from 12 percent now. Batteries become dramatically cheaper, making residential and utility-scale energy storage mainstream. Electric vehicles will also become widespread, helping to balance the grid from intermittent sources of generation from wind and solar.
Costs for solar have fallen by 75 percent over the past decade, and will fall by another 66 percent over the next 25 years. These projections even take into account the assumption that current subsidies for renewables expire.
Ultimately, the problems for coal look insurmountable. Solar is already cost-competitive with coal in many markets, and the onslaught against coal will only accelerate. By 2040, coal consumption in Europe will fall by 87 percent; decline by 45 percent in the U.S.; and fall by 15 percent globally. BNEF expects 369 gigawatts of coal-fired electricity to be scrapped by 2040.
The greening of the grid means that global greenhouse gas emissions from electricity reach a peak in 2026 and then start to decline. Still, that falls short of the 2-degree warming threshold laid out by the Paris Climate accord. In order to reach that target, investment in clean energy would have to increase by an additional $5.3 trillion.
The magnitude of this shift is hard to overstate. Still, they could also be too conservative. Coal’s fortunes are already falling apart, regardless of the Trump administration’s efforts to prop up the dying industry. "I think the train has left the station." Gerry Anderson, CEO of Detroit-based utility DTE Energy Co., told Bloomberg. "The administration can’t turn a 70-year-old coal plant into a 20-year-old coal plant."
Global coal production fell by a record amount in 2016 – a decline of more than 6 percent – and consumption dropped by 1.7 percent. These aren’t just the conclusions of some analysts and environmental groups. Even fossil fuel companies are very bullish on clean energy. “The fortunes of coal appear to have taken a decisive break from the past,” BP’s Chief Economist Spencer Dale said at a briefing. “At the heart of this shift are structural, long-term factors.”
BP also said that greenhouse gas emissions were essentially flat for the third year in a row in 2016. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the world sees emissions peak well before BNEF’s forecast of 2026.
One major question is what role natural gas plays in the evolving energy mix. Several oil majors are betting their future on natural gas, realizing that it could take large chunks of market share away from coal as governments try to clean up their electricity sectors. They view natural gas as probably the most dominant form of energy for decades to come.
But the BNEF report has some striking conclusions on that as well. In the U.S., natural gas still plays a “central role,” but elsewhere around the world it will be more of a supporting actor. Over the long-term the world will use gas as a flexible source to “help meet peaks and provide system stability in an age of rising renewable generation, rather than as a replacement for ‘baseload’ coal,” BNEF says.