Two Power Sources Rule in a Sunny, Windy 21st Century

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Bloomberg NEF just published its latest projections for the world’s electricity generation. It’s increasingly lower-carbon, reflecting changes in renewable energy already decades in the making, as well as the inexorable decreases in cost and increases in efficiency.

Just a decade ago, geothermal and biomass — essentially, combustion of organic matter to run turbines — made up the largest zero-carbon energy source after hydroelectricity. Wind passed biomass in 2011 and has ascended rapidly since. Solar, emerging from nearly zero generation around the same time, is on a path to equal geothermal and biomass in just a few years.

Geothermal and biomass were nearly 97 percent of total renewables generation in 1990; now, they are only 28 percent.

Despite wind generation still growing sharply, its share of the market seems to be plateauing, while solar continues to increase. So is this a persistent state for wind’s market share? And will solar ever overtake wind?

According to Bloomberg NEF’s New Energy Outlook, solar won’t overtake wind, at least not before 2050. Wind generation is a classic S-curve, nearly plateauing in total generation terms by 2050. Solar, by contrast, looks like a nearly straight line.

Wind’s plateau last year is expected to persist, taking away only a few percentage points from geothermal and biomass. Solar takes away much more. By 2050, the renewable generation mix is more than 96 percent wind and solar: In 60 years, wind and solar will have gone from a combined 3 percent of renewable generation to very nearly all of it.

In terms of dollar investment, my colleagues expect more than $11 trillion will be invested in power-generation assets between now and 2050, with a peak in investment from 2031 to 2035 (they also expect more than half a trillion dollars of battery deployment, too).

On a percentage basis, too, it’s another windy, sunny story. Wind and solar already attract more investment than coal, gas, nuclear and hydro combined. By 2050, more than 75 percent of all dollars invested in power generation will go toward these two technologies.

There’s a wrinkle, though: Investment in gas generation will actually increase as a percentage of total investment from 2031 to 2035. By 2050, it will be more than 15 percent of total power generation investment, as all that wind and solar create demand for flexible generation.

Finally, wind is forecast to jump past nuclear generation in 2025, then hydroelectricity, then gas, and, in 2039, past coal. Solar isn’t far behind, passing nuclear first in 2032 and coal a decade later, in 2042.

By mid-century, 1 of every 2 electrons on the grid will require only the wind or the sun and release no greenhouse gases at all. 

Weekend reading

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