Ember’s fourth annual Global Electricity Review reports that the carbon intensity of global electricity generation fell to a record low of 436 gCO2/kWh in 2022, the lowest ever recorded electricity, owing to record growth in wind and solar, which reached a 12% share in the global electricity mix, up from 10% in 2021. Together, all clean electricity sources (renewables and nuclear) reached 39% of global electricity, a new record high.
Solar generation rose by 24%, making it the fastest-growing electricity source for 18 years in a row: wind generation grew by 17%. Over sixty countries now generate more than 10% of their electricity from wind and solar. However, other sources of low carbon electricity fell for the first time since 2011 owing to a reduction in nuclear output and fewer new nuclear and hydro plants coming online.
Limited coal increase, gas demand flattens
Despite the fall in carbon intensity, power sector emissions rose in 2022 (+1.3%), reaching an all-time high. Electricity may be cleaner, but we are using more of it. Coal generation increased by 1.1%, in line with average growth in the last decade. The ‘coal power phasedown’ agreed at COP26 in 2021 may not have begun in 2022, but it is also true that the energy crisis didn’t lead to a major increase in coal burn as many feared.
Gas power generation fell marginally (-0.2%) in 2022 – for the second time in three years – in the wake of high gas prices globally. Gas-to-coal switching was limited in 2022 because gas was already mostly more expensive than coal in 2021. Only 31 GW of new gas power plants were built in 2022, the lowest in 18 years. But 2022 also saw the lowest number of coal plant closures in seven years, as countries look to maintain back-up capacity.
Wind and solar are slowing the rise in power sector emissions. The growth alone in wind and solar generation alone (+557 TWh) met 80% of global electricity demand growth in 2022 (+694 TWh).
Clean power growth is likely to exceed electricity demand growth in 2023; this would be the first year for this to happen outside of a recession. With average growth rates, Ember forecasts that 2023 will see a small fall in fossil generation (-47 TWh, -0.3%), with bigger falls in subsequent years as wind and solar grow further. That would mean 2022 hit “peak” emissions, a global turning point in emissions control.
But the report warns that although a new era of falling power sector emissions may be very close, wind and solar and all renewables sources will need to maintain high growth rates this decade to achieve it – while more attention to efficiency is needed to avoid runaway growth in electricity demand. And although it is the beginning of the end of the fossil age, just how quickly power sector emissions will fall is not yet determined. It all depends, says Ember, on the actions taken now by governments, businesses and citizens to put the world on a pathway to clean power by 2040.
Ember’s annual Global Electricity Review analyses electricity data from 78 countries representing 93% of global electricity demand and includes estimated changes in the remaining generation.