Solar and wind growth failing to outpace demand growth (except during an economic crisis)

The good news keeps on coming: Belgium is worldwide in the top 15 of “Wind and Solar countries”. More specifically, we are at 9th place having a share of 20% of our electricity production from solar and wind in 2020:

It didn’t end there. China, the EU-27 and the United States are responsible for more than two-thirds of global generation, Vietnam went from 0 to 14 TWh in just 3 years, Chile and South Korea have quadrupled their wind and solar generation since 2015, and many other countries (Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Turkey and Uruguay) have tripled it. Also, many countries now get around a tenth of their electricity, which is the global average for electricity generation from solar and wind.

Of course, the transition to solar and wind is going to be cheap. According the article, the cost for solar and wind are at a tipping point with almost two-thirds of wind and solar projects built globally last year will be able to generate electricity cheaper than even the world’s cheapest new coal plants.

That all sounds pretty impressive, but as usual in alternative energy reporting, this is just half of the story. Luckily, the author also showed the readers a glimpse of the challenges ahead, putting these glorious numbers somewhat in perspective.

I heard that “solar and wind energy are cheap” story many times before and already wrote several posts about it, so I will not go into much detail. The short story is that although it is correct that the hardware of solar and wind is getting cheaper, that is only one part of the cost. In the grand scheme of things, solar and wind give rise to additional costs because of the intermittency and (low) power density of solar/wind. These costs are generally not taken into account and therefor solar and wind are considered cheap.

The glimpses in the challenges arrive near the end of the article. This is the first one (my emphasis):

Building enough wind and solar just to keep up with demand growth will be a key challenge for many countries, even before they begin to help reduce CO2 emissions from legacy fossil generation.

That is a very interesting point that is so casually brought. Remember, at the start of the article we got to hear how glorious, wonderful, amazing that superduper progress made by solar and wind was. Yet, now we get to hear that solar and wind can’t even keep up with the demand growth and therefor even this glorious, wonderful, amazing, superduper progress was not sufficient to actually reduce emissions… That is not a small detail.

Later in the article the author elaborates more on this (my emphasis):

Up until recently, the deployment of clean electricity has been outpaced by rising demand for electricity, leaving the world ever more dependent on fossil fuels.

The pandemic year proved an exception. Ember’s Global Electricity Review revealed that wind and solar showed resilient growth in 2020, helping to force a record fall in coal. However, this was only possible because the pandemic paused the world’s rising demand for electricity.

That made me wonder how large the difference actually is, so I downloaded the BP statistical review 2021 dataset (with data until 2020) and graphed the growth of electricity from solar plus wind versus the growth of electricity demand:

The growth of electricity by solar and wind is below the growth of electricity demand, except on two occasions. The first dip is clearly the financial crisis of 2009 and the second, even deeper, dip is the 2020 pandemic when governments worldwide closed down their economies because of The Koof. That “up until recently” phrase is in that sense a bit misleading. This was clearly not the first time that growth of solar and wind outpaced the growth of demand, it also happened more than a decade before 2020. This outpacing had nothing to do with the efforts countries put into increasing the share of solar and wind, but with large-scale economic crisis situations as we seen in 2009 and in 2020.

The author also mentioned that there are other challenges ahead besides solar and wind growth being outpaced by demand growth:

In the next decade, clean electricity deployment must accelerate to both replace fossil fuels and meet rising demand for electricity as we electrify the world’s economy and provide electricity access for all.

Wrapping up, that is basically a triple whammy:

  1. there are still roughly a billion people without access to electricity, so demand will surely rise further to provide electricity for all (think India and China that are boosting their electricity generation, followed by Africa)
  2. there is also a trend to electrify the economy in order for other sectors like heating and transport to wean off fossil fuels, which according to the article means about 2.5 times the current demand…
  3. then there is the challenge to replace fossil fuels (currently only happening during large-scale economic crises when demand is severely tanking).

The current challenge is therefor only a fraction of the challenge that we will face in the next decade(s). That is also not a small detail.

The author however seems to be unfazed by these observations. He still seems to believe that solar and wind are at a tipping point and that a rapid growth will fix all these issues. I am not so sure about that, but I am glad that at least the challenges ahead are being acknowledged.

2 thoughts on “Solar and wind growth failing to outpace demand growth (except during an economic crisis)

  1. Pingback: And the second position goes to … Uruguay – Climate- Science.press

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