Another Year, Another Dismal Prognosis for Coal
BloombergNEF’s latest New Energy Outlook—or NEO, as we call it—is our annual examination of the energy economy’s changes. We define them in thousands of gigawatts of generation capacity, millions of barrels of oil per day, billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and trillions of dollars of investment capital. Just as importantly, we capture the significant changes that have already happened and analyze those that are coming.
Here’s what has already happened. Global carbon dioxide emissions from fuels burned for power, transportation, industry, and building-related applications probably peaked in 2019. Power sector emissions—the largest single component of fuel combustion emissions today—probably peaked in 2018. Emissions from coal-fired power, still the single largest component of global power generation, also peaked in 2018. Power emissions from natural gas probably peaked in 2019.
If we look at the period beginning in 2012, when BNEF began doing its NEO analyses, and ending in 2050, where most major forecasters terminate their long-term analyses, we not only see coal and gas converging as sources of global power, we also see what overtakes them. Coal- and gas-fired power both end up generating around 5,000 terawatt-hours in 2050, good for 11 to 12% of total power generation that year. Solar, though, is nearly double that, and wind is higher still.
Gas and coal aren’t used just for power—they have industrial, chemical, and building-related uses, as well. In those cases, it’s either hard or impossible to substitute them with other current energy technologies. Where there is a substitute, it’s often gas.
While overall coal and oil combustion and emissions peak before mid-century, gas does not. It grows by half a percent per year through mid-century, with cumulative growth of 33% in the buildings sector and 23% in the industrial sector. That’s just from the vantage point of today, though. Demand in those sectors will be subject to the same forces that are depressing demand for both coal- and gas-fired power. As technology and regulation and the imperatives to decarbonize the energy system continue to progress, so too will BNEF’s projections for the future.
Every year, the future gets closer. The peak in energy-sector emissions BNEF identified would have sounded ridiculous in 2010 and seemed exceedingly unlikely even in 2015. In 2020, it’s not the future; it’s the immediate past. In each successive year the NEO has brought its estimate for peak coal-fired power generation closer—from the 2040s at first to the 2030s, the mid-2020s, and now to last year.
Plant owners can look at the last six years of long-term energy outlooks and see technologically and economically driven change coming. Whether or not they act on those changes may well determine how their own companies will survive and thrive.
Nathaniel Bullard is a BloombergNEF analyst who writes the Sparklines newsletter about the global transition to renewable energy.
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