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Here are Four Seismic Shifts in Global Energy Within One Lifetime

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Renewables now account for 13 per cent of global power generation

Every year, energy supermajor BP Plc performs a much-needed service for economists, analysts and long-term planners everywhere with its annual Statistical Review of World Energy. Published since the 1960s, it’s a trove of data on energy production and consumption, power generation, trade flows and other aspects of today’s energy system.
The publication always rewards a close look at both long-term trends and notable near-term changes. A reader could probably draw out dozens of meaningful trends, if they had time. Instead, four are highlighted here.

1. Renewables are now 13 per cent of global power generation


In 1985, coal-fired power was 38 per cent of global electricity generation. Hydro was 20 per cent, nuclear, 15 per cent; natural gas, 14 per cent; and oil, a bit over 11 per cent.

Three and a half decades later, coal is still king at 36 per cent, and gas has increased to almost 23 per cent. But every other major generation source of the mid-1980s has lost relative share — and more than gas alone can account for.

That is because renewable power (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and small hydropower) has grown from 0.8 per cent of the world’s electricity mix to 13 per cent. Renewables passed the 10 per cent mark in 2019 and have added 0.8 per cent of market share — the same amount that they accounted for globally in 1985! — on average annually since 2010.

2. Wind and solar now generate more than nuclear power

Last year, I noted that although renewable power generation does not exactly compete with nuclear, renewables were winning. In 2020, all renewable power generation surpassed all nuclear generation. In 2021, wind and solar surpassed 10 per cent of global generation on their own, and overtook nuclear in annual generation.

2021 was actually a significant year for nuclear power. Nuclear generation increased more than four per cent, the biggest increase since 2004, thanks to Chinese fleet additions.

3. China is now the world’s biggest importer of liquefied natural gas

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BP has tracked trade in liquefied natural gas since the year 2000. At the start of the century, Japan was far and away the world’s biggest LNG importer, taking in about 75 billion cubic metres a year. Europe as a whole was the next biggest importer, followed by South Korea. China did not even begin importing LNG until 2006.

Over the next 20 years, Japan’s LNG imports peaked, driven by the closure of many of the country’s nuclear plants following the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011. Europe’s import volume looked poised to match Japan’s a decade ago, before falling back and then rising again to exceed Japan’s in 2019. Korea’s imports more than doubled, despite the occasional year of modest decline.And then there is China. China imported 109.5 billion cubic metres of LNG last year, 1.3 billion more than Europe. Asia has accounted for 70 per cent of global LNG trade for the past decade, during which time China’s shares of both global LNG trade and of Asia LNG trade have more than tripled.

4. China generates more renewable electricity than Europe



China, again, and a story and chart that should look familiar. In 1965, the United States generated 13 terawatt-hours of renewable electricity and Europe generated 3 terawatt-hours. Data on China’s renewable generation does not appear until 1990, at which point its 0.1 terawatt-hour was less than 1/600th of what the U.S. was generating.

Fast forward to 2016 and China has surpassed the U.S. and reached close to 60 per cent of Europe’s total renewable generation. Then, in 2021, China rockets past Europe, adding almost 290 terawatt-hours of total renewable electricity generation in one year. Last year, Japan and India generated a combined 302 terawatt-hours.

Not every development in energy last year was positive. Coal consumption, for instance, rebounded sharply and was very close to its all-time high of 2013. Primary energy consumption reached an all-time high as well.But primary energy consumption per capita has been more or less flat for a decade; it peaked 15 years ago in OECD countries. And growth rates matter. Coal consumption grew only 0.1 per cent per year from 2011 to 2021, and gas grew at 2.2 per cent. During that same 10 years, renewable power generation grew at 15 per cent per year on average. The global energy system is huge and complex, and massive consumption of fossil fuels still dominates the mix. Zero-carbon power, however, is where growth lies.

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