Burning Ember

A few days ago I added a comment on Open Mic about the BBC’s reporting of a Global Electricity Review 2023 produced by Ember:

Ember’s roots go back to 2008, when Baroness Bryony Worthington saw the desperate need to shine a light on the malfunctioning EU carbon market.

Founded as Sandbag Climate Campaign to achieve real action on climate change, we set up the ‘Destroy Carbon’ campaign to enable the public to buy and remove surplus carbon allowances from the EU Emissions Trading System. However, we soon realised that huge surpluses were not something that could be solved by individuals, but needed policy change. We saw an opportunity in the vast amount of data that the carbon market was collecting from 11,000 power stations and factories across Europe. We quickly transitioned into data-driven policy advocacy to address these systemic issues. We helped achieve real policy reform that took the EU carbon price from €2 to €30, which has meaningfully reduced emissions in the power sector and is beginning to have an impact on industry too. (We even won a world record!)

The BBC report describes Ember as “energy analysts”, which is possibly a fair description, but as the above quote confirms, they are much more than that. They are a campaigning organisation with an agenda. There is nothing wrong in that, of course, but perhaps some extra background information would be useful to enable readers of the BBC’s article to put Ember’s report in an appropriate context. And this is the context:

To avoid catastrophic climate change, OECD countries need a coal power phase-out by 2030, and the rest of the world soon after. We’re going to work flat out to make that happen – and without an expansion in false solutions such as fossil gas or unsustainable biomass.

I repeat: they are more – much more – than simply “energy analysts”. Their website tells us that:

Ember is 1 of 8 climate charities selected to receive donations from The Crowd, a charity that harnesses the power of collective action to fight against climate change.

We also learn that it is funded by many of the usual suspects – Climate Giving; the Sunrise Project; Thirty Percy; the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation; WWF; Quadrature Climate Foundation; Environmental Defense Fund; Climate-KIC; and the European Climate Foundation.

On balance therefore, I really think the BBC should have made it clear that the report on which it was commenting was prepared by a campaigning organisation (funded by other campaigning organisations) whose objective is to fight against climate change by driving a shift in the sources of energy worldwide. I am not saying that Ember’s report doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously, but the background to its preparation should be fully understood, and such understanding is not achieved by simply describing Ember as “energy analysts”, with the possible implication that they are objective and disinterested energy analysts.

And so to the report itself. Nothing that the BBC reported about it is inaccurate – all statistics are faithfully taken from the Ember report or the summary appearing on its website (the report itself runs to 163 pages and requires a download to view it). However, the BBC report focuses on the positive spin and doesn’t mention some other less positive (that is from the point of climate worriers) information contained within the report.

For instance, while mentioning that coal generation of electricity increased by 1.1% in 2022, there is no mention of the fact that “2022 saw the lowest number of coal plant closures in seven years, as countries look to maintain back-up capacity…”.

There are challenges a-plenty to the brave new world of electricity generated by renewables:

…more attention to efficiency is needed to avoid runaway growth in electricity demand. Urgent work is needed on ensuring wind and solar can be integrated into the grid: planning permissions, grid connections, grid flexibility and market design.

So few words, so many issues (so lightly touched on), none of them mentioned in the BBC report. And, as demand for electricity grows globally, it’s all very well reporting on large percentage increases in renewable sources of generation, but large percentages of a small number are still a small number. Evidently, fossil fuels are still responsible for most of the heavy lifting with regard to electricity generation:

As of 2021, about three-quarters of power sector emissions were from coal, and almost a quarter from gas.

Much of the report is really about projections and what needs to be done, while whistling in the dark to keep spirits up. The scale of the challenge is clearly set out:

By 2030, wind and solar need to have increased to 41% of global electricity generation, up from 10% in 2021. Coal generation needs to fall by 54% and gas generation by 24%. At the same time, electricity demand will rise dramatically, by an average of 3.7% per year from 2021 to 2030, as electrification picks up pace.

While the shape of the path ahead is broadly clear, it is interesting to note the adjustments made by the IEA when updating the NZE scenario from 2021 to 2022. The scenario remains largely the same except for a much larger forecasted fall in gas power from 2021 to 2030 (previously 5%, now 24%), and a smaller fall in coal power (previously 71% fall, now a 54% fall). This change likely reflects the slower progress in 2022 on coal phaseout, but also a newfound possibility that gas power could begin its phasedown this decade. Regardless, either version reflects the need for rapid declines in all fossil fuel power.

Even the happy headline statistics include very real issues and problems for the narrative:

2022 beat 2020 as the cleanest ever year, as emissions intensity reached a record low of 436 gCO2/kWh. Wind and solar reached a record 12% of global electricity generation, but they still weren’t built fast enough to meet all of the world’s increasing need for electricity. Consequently, coal and other fossils met the remaining gap, driving up emissions to a new record high.

Talk of tipping-points and of “clean” electricity generation forging ahead sound a bit lame when we are told (enthusiastically, as though this represents massive progress): “Over sixty countries now generate more than 10% of their electricity from wind and solar.” Forgive me for being underwhelmed.

While energy demand fell in Europe in 2022 (for obvious reasons which the Ember report acknowledges, principally high prices), the situation is problematic elsewhere. Electricity demand grew by 2.5% in 2022, and 93% of that growth was driven by just three economies (who by happy coincidence – or perhaps not – are three of the worlds biggest greenhouse gas emitters), namely China (54% of the growth); USA (21%); and India (18%).

A rather inconvenient truth surrounds the fact that these countries are driving up demand for electricity worldwide. For while globally 80% of new electricity demand was met by wind and solar, in those three countries, responsible for most of the demand growth, solar and wind performed less well – in China, they met just 69% of the demand growth; in the USA they met just 68%; and in India they supplied a catastrophically low 23% of demand growth. Of course, as we know, rather unhelpfully for the narrative, India is relying ever more heavily on coal.

Globally, coal use increased by 1.1%, though of course we are talking only about coal use for electricity generation (admittedly that probably represents most of the increase in demand for it). Tucked nonchalantly away is the statistic that other fossil fuel (seemingly oil) generation rose by 11% in 2022. And while coal use fell by 7.8% in the USA it rose in China (by 1.5%); in India (by 7.2%); in Japan (3.1%); and in the EU (by 6.4%). As electricity generated by gas fell by 0.2% globally in 2022, it rose by 7.3% in the USA, this largely explaining the fall in coal use in that country. Middle Eastern countries don’t seem to be too keen to co-operate in providing information at all:

Other fossil fuels–mainly oil– increased by 86 TWh, where there were some instances of gas-to-oil switching (although this datapoint is a little tentative, because of poor reporting by Middle Eastern countries which have the majority of oil generation).

For all the hype, then, in both the Ember report and the BBC’s summary of it, the reality is this:

Overall, fossil generation rose by 183 TWh (+1.1%) in 2022, setting a new record. As a result, power sector CO2 emissions rose by 160 million tonnes (+1.3%) reaching a record high of 12,431 mtCO2. Emissions intensity is heading in the right direction, but absolute emissions are not yet falling. This means that the power sector is not yet seeing the emissions cuts needed for net zero, as emissions should be falling by an average 7.6% annually this decade.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that all figures quoted here relate to the global sources of electricity generation, and don’t talk about – for instance – fossil fuel use in transport, home heating etc.

And developing countries (and/or those reliant on fossil fuels to generate wealth) don’t seem to be fully signed up to the agenda. Again we are told that:

The Middle East stands out as the only region that is still at the start of its journey, with poor data transparency that also makes it difficult to estimate changes in 2022.

We also learn that Latin America’s wind and solar growth slowed in 2022, and that “Africa has slowed in the last few years”. How casually that rather negative information is thrown out. Euphemisms abound. Several countries are “at the start of their solar and wind journey: South Korea (5%), Pakistan (4%), Thailand (4%), the Philippines (2%), Singapore (2%), Bangladesh (1%) and Malaysia (1%). All Eurasian countries, except for Kazakhstan, have almost zero.” As for the Middle East (oh dear, them again):

In the Middle East, solar and wind have yet to establish themselves. Many countries have under 1% in the mix. This includes Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has published big plans for renewables, however with little demonstrable progress towards those so far.

Interestingly, for all the hype around wind and solar, we learn next that:

Despite their rapid growth and place in the future global power mix, the world’s largest sources of clean electricity are neither solar nor wind, at least not yet. Instead, hydro and nuclear are currently the largest clean sources, generating 15% and 9% of the world’s electricity respectively in 2022. Although the growth expectations for these technologies are smaller compared to solar and wind, they are not currently being expanded at the rate needed to limit global warming to 1.5C. Hence their slowdown could have big implications for the electricity transition.

That might be the understatement of the year, given the continuing hostility of many “Greens” to the use of nuclear power. The decline in nuclear as a “clean” (i.e. low greenhouse gas emitting) source of power was brought home all too evidently by recent developments in Germany. Apparently, nuclear’s share of global electricity generation has fallen from 17% in 2000 to 9% in 2022, while hydro’s share has fallen in the same period from 18% to 15%. And what of bioenergy, rather dubiously considered by some to be a “green” source of power generation? Its

growth is slowing, as significant climate risks in the technology are exposed, and many governments are losing faith in subsidising expensive internationally traded wood pellets. Unlike solar and wind, bioenergy also relies on an often expensive fuel, and so has not been able to mature away from subsidies.

So much comes back to China and India. There is optimistic talk about “clean” energy generation being able to meet China’s continuously growing demand but even so, solar and wind have been meeting only 69% of 2022’s demand growth. Given that 2022’s growth (perhaps having been slowed by covid) was “only” 4.4%, against a ten year average of 6% p.a., even Ember express concern:

If electricity demand rises back to that trend, then clean power isn’t so close.

And as for India:

In India, clean electricity growth is still a way off meeting all electricity demand growth. In 2022, electricity demand rose significantly (+124 TWh, +7.2%) as the economy bounced back after a slowdown in 2021 amid a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. India’s wind and solar rose only by 29 TWh, meeting 23% of the demand growth, while all clean sources rose by 47 TWh, providing 38%. Hence clean power played a relatively small role in slowing India’s rising fossil generation.

Predicting electricity demand growth is a contentious subject within India. The last ten years (2012-2022) have averaged 5.3% annual growth in electricity demand. India’s recent draft National Electricity Plan 14 (NEP14) assumes there will be 6.1% growth on average each year until financial year 2032. As solar and wind build rates increase to meet the government’s target of 450 GW by 2030, the additional solar and wind generation could meet annual demand growth of around 4-5% through to 2030. But if electricity demand grows faster, then coal generation will likely continue to grow.

And then it dawns that electrification of the economy, as demanded by net zero, implies a significant increase in demand for electricity:

It is not only rapidly developing economies that will see an increase in demand for electricity. As clean electrification takes off, and the energy system is rebuilt around clean electricity, mature economies will also have to grapple with how to meet rising demand with clean sources.

The share of electrification in the total final energy consumption is increasing. This is predicted to rise from 20% in 2021 to 27% by 2030 as electrification helps to decarbonize different sectors, especially transport and heating, as noted by the IEA. This will mean a notable increase in electricity demand. All economies will therefore need to ensure they are building enough clean power to both meet rising electricity demand and replace fossil fuels.

Coal again:

In late 2021, global leaders at COP26 agreed to ‘phase down’ unabated coal power.

However, fewer coal power plants were closed in 2022 than in any year since 2014. In China, only 0.1% of its coal fleet retired in 2022 (the same as in 2021). This followed power cuts in 2021, which led President Xi Jinping to announce in 2022 to “establish the new before demolishing the old”, pushing coal closures to the back of the political agenda. But China’s appetite for new coal also showed a revival. New coal power plants–announced, permitted, and under construction–accelerated dramatically in China in 2022, with new permits reaching the highest level since 2015, and 50 GW of coal power capacity started construction in China in 2022, a more than 50% increase from 2021. The coal power capacity starting construction in China was six times as large as that in all of the rest of the world combined. This meant the net rise in coal capacity (+2%) was bigger than the rise in coal generation (+1.5%); consequently, utilisation of China’s thermal power plants fell to 4379 hours in 2022, which was below 50% for the first time.

Like China, India also faced power cuts in 2021, which then continued into 2022. In India, the Central Electricity Authority asked that no coal power plants be closed until 2030, so India–like China–is also positioning itself to keep coal power plants open for now.

In the EU, old coal plants even reopened. There were 26 old coal units brought back on emergency standby in 2022 during this winter, as Russia cut off almost all pipeline gas into Europe. However, the average utilisation of the 26 units during the winter was just 18% and they added only 1% to Europe’s generation in 2022, and most of the plant reactivations were planned for one or two winters only. Commitments by European countries to phaseout coal are largely unimpacted.

…this trend may unnerve those hoping for rapid coal power plant closures…


The global electricity generation mix is still dominated by fossil fuels, which provided 61% of electricity generation in 2022. Coal accounted for 36% (10,186 TWh), fossil gas for 22% (6,336 TWh) and other fossils for 3% (850 TWh) of global generation. Hydro remained the largest clean electricity source at 15% (4,311 TWh), and nuclear the second largest source contributing just over 9%

(2,611 TWh). Wind and solar together reached a 12% share of global electricity (3,444 TWh), with wind at 7.6% (2,160 TWh) and solar at 4.5% (1,284 Twh). Bioenergy generated 2.4% (672 TWh) of global electricity, and other renewables 0.4%.


The world’s reliance on fossil power has declined only slightly in the past two decades, from 64% in 2000 to 61% in 2022. During that time, coal generation grew in absolute terms from 5,719 TWh in 2000 to 10,186 TWh in 2022, even while its share of generation dropped from 38% in 2000 to 36% in 2022. Gas generation has increased by four percentage points since 2000 to account for 22% of global electricity in 2022. Other fossil fuels fell from 7.8% of generation to 3% over the same period.

Ember is a campaigning organisation. It is my opinion that its 2023 review contains a lot of hype about wind and solar, and a lot of projections that are based on wishful thinking. A 3% decline in reliance globally on fossil fuel power over two decades suggests to me that we are nowhere near a “clean” energy tipping-point, and that the targets we are told we have to meet to limit global temperature increases to 1.5C beyond pre-industrial era temperatures remains a fantasy. Especially when one bears in mind that even on Ember’s figures (I have no reason to doubt them) electricity accounted for only around 20% of final energy consumption in 2021. As electrification of the world’s economies takes place, demand for electricity will increase significantly. By just how much is an open question, to which the latter part of the Ember report devotes much thought and ink, but that’s one for another day.

via Climate Scepticism


April 16, 2023 at 03:31PM

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