Renewables Are Meeting Demand — but Climate Disasters Are Pushing Back the Tipping Point

Renewables Are Meeting Demand — but Climate Disasters Are Pushing Back the Tipping Point

Renewables have been keeping pace with growing global energy demand, a new analysis finds, in an encouraging sign during a global energy crisis. But there’s trouble ahead for clean power, as climate change keeps wreaking havoc and supercharging droughts and heatwaves.

A report out this week from UK-based clean energy think tank Ember takes a look at how electricity has been faring thus far in 2022. The report analyses energy data from 75 countries; those 75 countries represent 90% of the world’s electricity demand. The report then compares this data to the first six months of 2021 to gauge changes over time.

First, the good news: Even with a global energy crisis on our hands, the huge amount of renewable energy being installed worldwide helped avoid any new fossil fuel generation in the first half of this year. According to Ember’s data, the demand for electricity increased by around 3%, which was entirely met by renewable energy sources. Wind and solar, the report found, accounted for more than 75% of this demand increase, while hydropower made up the rest. In some countries, wind and solar really pulled a heavy load; in China, wind and solar helped meet 92% of the country’s increased demand.

“We are getting closer to a tipping point, where clean electricity – led by wind and solar – will meet all future electricity demand growth, and thus fossil fuel power generation peaks,” Malgorzata Wiatros-Motyka, the senior electricity analyst at Ember, wrote in the report.

All that renewable energy had some tangible cost benefits, the analysis found. Because renewables were able to meet energy demand, the world avoided a potential 4% increase in fossil fuel generation — which would not only have emitted 230 metric tons of carbon dioxide but would have also meant an extra $US40 ($56) billion in expense, thanks to the skyrocketing costs of fossil fuels during this year’s global energy crisis. Last year, global emissions from energy use reached an all-time high, supercharged by an increased demand for coal — so renewables keeping pace with demand for the first half of this year is very promising.

But there could be trouble on the horizon. In the months of July and August, Ember’s analysis found, the serious impacts of climate change that crippled countries around the world this summer also had a real impact on energy consumption. One of the most jarring shifts happened in China, where serious droughts meant that hydropower output tanked, especially in industry-heavy Sichuan Province, where 80% of the province’s electricity comes from hydropower. This created a new demand for coal-fired power in China and turned that country’s surplus of clean power, which was helped along by huge hydropower output, into a deficit.

In Europe, climate impacts created similar problems. Heatwaves impacted nuclear plants in France, as warmer-than-usual rivers forced French energy suppliers to lower energy production at some power stations to ensure they didn’t overheat. European countries had to crank up electricity during searing, deadly heatwaves, turning once more to coal-fired power to cool everyone off — especially as European hydropower also fell, thanks to the continent’s historic drought. All in all, the rise in demand for fossil fuels over the summer meant that over the past eight months, emissions from electricity generation have risen 1.7% — despite the real gains made in the first six months of the year.

It remains to be seen how the rest of the year goes, but the Ember analysis of these first three quarters illustrates the complexity of the challenges the world is facing in the coming energy transition. Renewables can provide carbon-free power at a fraction of the cost of fossil fuels, a huge boon during fossil-fuelled energy crises, like the one we’re facing now from the Russian war in Ukraine. But their efficacy can also be impacted by climate change itself, a cruel reminder of just how far fossil fuels have pushed our world to the brink.

“We can’t be sure if we’ve reached peak coal and gas in the power sector,” Wiatros-Motyka said in the report. “Global power sector emissions are still pushing all-time highs when they need to be falling very quickly. And the same fossil fuels pushing us into a climate crisis are also causing the global energy crisis.”

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