These 4 charts show the world just passed a major clean energy milestone

  • Author(s): Laura Paddison, Rachel Wilson, Jhasua Razo and Lou Robinson

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The world has passed a clean energy milestone, as a boom in wind and solar meant a record-breaking 30% of the world’s electricity was produced by renewables last year, new data shows.

The planet is reaching “a crucial turning point” toward clean energy, according to the Global Electricity Review published Wednesday by climate think tank Ember. It predicts global fossil fuel generation will fall slightly in 2024, before experiencing much bigger declines in subsequent years.

It’s a significant step toward the world reaching 60% renewable electricity by 2030, which is critical to meeting global climate goals, said Dave Jones, global insights director at Ember.

“The renewables future has arrived,” Jones said. “Solar in particular is accelerating faster than anyone thought possible.”

A look at the data reveals just how much the global power sector is changing.

Record-breaking renewables

In 2000, renewables made up less than 19% of the global energy mix. Now they make up more than 30%. Taking nuclear energy into account, the world generated almost 40% of its electricity from low-carbon sources last year.

Although global levels of planet-heating pollution reached a record high in 2023, the boom in renewables has pushed the electricity sector’s carbon intensity — the amount of carbon pollution produced per unit of electricity — to a record low in 2023, 12% less than its 2007 peak.

Renewable sources accounted for 30% of global electricity generation in 2023

Greater use of renewable energy sources pushed the carbon intensity of global power generation to a new record low in 2023 — 12% less than its 2007 peak.

The rise of renewables is also pushing fossil fuels into decline, slowing their growth by almost two-thirds over the past decade, the report found. Already, more than half of countries are five years past their peak in fossil fuel-generated electricity.

Fossil fuels’ share in the overall electricity mix has fallen from 64.7% in 2000 to 60.6% in 2023. Ember predicts this number will drop significantly in 2024, to 57.6%, as the rapid increase in solar starts to be felt.

“We’re going to get that boom in renewables, which will really change the picture very quickly,” Jones told CNN.

Booming solar

Solar was the fastest-growing source of electricity in 2023 for the 19th consecutive year, according to the report. It made up nearly twice as much new electricity generation as coal last year.

The surge of solar installations happened at the end of 2023, so the full effect is yet to be felt, said Jones. “I think that 2024 will bring a bit of a shock when you start seeing those numbers,” he said, especially among those who assume the demand for fossil fuels such as gas is going to just keep rising.

Solar energy is the fastest-growing electricity source

The expansion of renewables in the global electricity mix has been driven by significant increases in solar and wind generation. Their growth far outpaces that of hydropower, which is the largest source of clean power.

China is the largest producer of solar electricity globally

It contributed to more than one-third of global solar generation and produced more than twice as much solar electricity as the United States in 2023. But the share of solar power in both countries’ domestic electricity mix is equally low at around 6% .

Top 10 solar electricity producers, 2023

China is far and away the leader on solar, accounting for nearly 36% of global generation last year.

But it’s a different story when looking at how big a role it plays in China’s national electricity mix — just 6%, far below many other major solar-producing nations.

Solar makes up more than 10% of annual electricity generation in 33 countries, according to the report, including Chile (30%), Australia (17%) and the Netherlands (17%) — and California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, generates 28% of its electricity from solar.

Electricity demand set to soar

Global electricity demand increased to a record high in 2023 — adding the equivalent of Canada’s entire electricity demand — but the rate of growth slowed compared to the average over the past decade.

China was the main driver of demand, while the United States and the European Union saw sharp falls amid milder weather and — particularly for the EU — a temporary slump in industrial activity.

Asia and particularly China drove the 2023 growth in global electricity demand

While global electricity demand increased in 2023, it grew at a lower rate than the 2.5% average of the past decade, with the United States and Europe seeing sharp falls. Demand growth, however, is expected to accelerate sharply over the next few years, driven by technology such as electric vehicles, heat pumps, air conditioning and data centres.

Electricity demand is set to soar from 2024 onward, Ember’s analysis found. Electric vehicles, heat pumps and electrolysis — the process used to make green hydrogen, a much-hyped clean energy — will increase demand, alongside technologies such as air conditioning and artificial intelligence.

The spread of these technologies will increase the growth in electricity demand, but overall demand will decline as electrification is more efficient than fossil fuels, according to the report.

Overall, Ember’s report “does provide hope,” said Nancy Haegel, a research advisor at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, who was not involved in the analysis. “It shows that we can generate significant amounts of electricity with renewable energy.”

The question is whether the pace of the transition will be fast enough, she told CNN. “Choices in the next 10 years are critical.”

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