The fossil fuel era is nearing its end, as a recent report reveals that wind and solar power achieved record-breaking levels of electricity generation worldwide in 2022. According to clean energy think tank Ember, renewable energy sources contributed 12% of global electricity production in 2022, up from 10% in the previous year. Despite a minor uptick in coal usage pushing electricity emissions to an all-time high, analysts anticipate this will mark the zenith of pollution levels. Małgorzata Wiatros-Motyka, lead author of the report, states that “we are entering the clean power era.”
Ember’s fourth annual Global Electricity Review projects a slight decline in fossil fuel generation in 2023 if clean energy meets all new demand this year as anticipated. More significant reductions will follow as wind and solar energy deployment accelerates. In 2022, solar power, the fastest-growing electricity source for the 18th consecutive year, increased by 24% compared to 2021. Ember estimates that solar-powered renewables generated enough electricity to power the entire nation of South Africa. Additionally, wind power generation increased by 17%, sufficient to power almost all of the United Kingdom. Combined, clean electricity sources (renewables and nuclear) constituted 39% of global electricity, with hydropower accounting for 15% of the new record, based on Ember’s data.
Nevertheless, coal power remained the most significant source of electricity globally in 2022, responsible for 36% of total production. Ember’s head of data insights, Dave Jones, explains that the expected resurgence of coal during the global gas crisis did not occur. Instead, the growth of wind and solar power met an astounding 80% of the increase in global electricity demand in 2022, helping to minimize coal usage. Coal generation rose by a mere 1.1%, while gas power experienced a slight 0.2% decline. Wiatros-Motyka predicts that “clean electricity will reshape the global economy, from transport to industry and beyond,” as “the end of gas power growth is now within sight.”
Ember’s analysis of electricity data from 78 countries, which represent 93% of global electricity demand, revealed that over 60 countries now derive more than 10% of their energy from wind and solar. European nations, including Denmark, Lithuania, and Luxembourg, are leading the charge. Denmark generated the largest proportion of wind and solar power at 60.8% in 2022, followed by Lithuania and Luxembourg with 48.4% and 46.6%, respectively. In terms of terawatt-hours (TWh), Germany produced the most wind and solar power in Europe, followed by Spain and the UK.
However, the progress of developed countries and emerging economies in Asia contrasts with the slower adoption of renewable energy in developing countries. Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, warns that further action must be taken to avoid leaving poor nations behind and forcing them into high-carbon futures. To achieve economy-wide net zero by 2050, the International Energy Agency’s model stipulates that the electricity sector must reach net zero by 2040. This goal entails wind and solar power constituting 41% of global electricity by 2030, a significant leap from 12% in 2022.
According to Ember, realizing this objective depends on the immediate actions of governments, businesses, and individuals to steer the world toward clean power. Dr. Ajay Mathur, Director General of the International Solar Alliance, believes that the future relies on accelerating renewable energy adoption and making renewable energy technology a global public good. He recommends implementing stronger policies to facilitate finance and improve access to components and raw materials and resources, as well as promoting greater geographical diversification of the supply chain. In order to hasten the process of achieving universal access to energy, Dr. Mathur also supports continual capacity building, switching energy subsidies from fossil fuels to sources of clean energy, and increasing solar mini-grid systems.
As the world enters a new era of clean energy, some countries are making significant strides while others struggle to keep pace. Li Shuo, Senior Policy Advisor at Greenpeace East Asia, highlights China’s dual role as both a leader in global renewable energy expansion and a country accelerating coal project approval. This underscores the complexity of the global power sector and the challenges faced in transitioning to a clean energy future.
It is essential that policymakers, industry leaders, and citizens work together to build a sustainable, equitable, and efficient energy system. The rapid growth of wind and solar power demonstrates that a clean energy future is possible, but it requires concerted effort and collaboration to ensure that all nations have access to the benefits of renewable energy.
The report from Ember emphasizes the urgent need for a collective, global shift toward renewable energy sources. By harnessing the potential of wind and solar power, the world can reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and pave the way for a cleaner, more sustainable future. As the end of the fossil fuel age approaches, it’s time for governments, businesses, and individuals to embrace the clean power era and work together to create a more resilient and equitable global energy system.