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Renewable Energy Set to Overtake Coal Power Globally by 2025

Renewable power capacity will double in the next five years, says a new International Energy Agency report.

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Stock image of hand holding solar panels and wind turbines
Tuesday’s IEA report seems like as good an occasion as any to once again celebrate the weirder sustainability stock images.
Image: New Africa (Shutterstock)

On this fine Wednesday, may I present you with a rare bit of positive climate news: Sustainable energy is on the rise. Globally, the amount of renewable energy from sources like wind and solar is set to increase as much in the next five years as it did over the past 20, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency. And, in that doubling, renewable power will overtake coal by 2025, accounting for more than 90% of all electricity expansion between now and 2027, the IEA forecasted.

Coal is the dirtiest form of fossil fuel in terms of its emissions, releasing over 30% more CO2 per unit energy than gasoline. Shifting away from coal as a fuel source is a key part of fighting climate change. If that move is toward renewables (rather than something like natural gas), it’s even more of an environmental win.

Just last year, the IEA projected a 30% smaller increase in renewable capacity on the same timeline, but a combination of factors brought this year’s projection way up.

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The intergovernmental organization attributed the unprecedented predicted renewables rise in part to the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—echoing its previous analysis from a few weeks ago. During the war, the E.U. hasn’t been able to rely on Russian natural gas, which has prompted many countries (in Europe and beyond) to invest in domestic production of greener power alternatives. The invasion further contributed to higher fossil fuel costs, boosting already competitive and cheaper wind and solar.

“Renewables were already expanding quickly, but the global energy crisis has kicked them into an extraordinary new phase of even faster growth as countries seek to capitalise on their energy security benefits,” said IEA director Fatih Birol, in a press release about the report. “This is a clear example of how the current energy crisis can be a historic turning point towards a cleaner and more secure energy system.”

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Recently introduced policies like the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act and China’s 2022 Five Year Plan for energy also made a big impact—alongside other legislation and policy reforms in India and the E.U., noted the report summary. IEA estimates for renewable growth in China alone increased by more than 35%. For the U.S., that figure was a little more than 25%.

Zooming in on just wind and photovoltaic solar, IEA projects these power sources will provide almost one-fifth of global electricity generation by 2027. And solar alone is likely to be the largest single global energy source by 2027.

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However, even with the optimistic forecast, challenges still loom in the energy transition. The IEA cited slow permitting processes and lack of existing grid infrastructure as expected hurdles for wealthy nations like the U.S. In low-income countries, the agency expects the major difficulties to be lack of financing for the high upfront cost of renewable expansion and infrastructure limitations.

And it’s not all good news. This predicted acceleration of green energy isn’t nearly enough on its own to put the world on track to meet the critical Paris Agreement goals of holding warming to below 2C and ideally below 1.5 C. Our best chance of doing that and averting some of the worst consequences of runaway climate change is to end new fossil fuel development immediately, the IEA previously wrote. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that reaching the Paris Agreement goals would require that we end or offset all CO2 emissions by 2050, as reported by the New York Times.

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Plus, the IEA’s assessment includes imperfect energy sources like biofuels and hydrogen gas, which still contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable doesn’t necessarily mean emissions free, and greener than coal is a low bar to clear.