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Renewables Increasingly Beat Even Cheapest Coal Competitors on Cost

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Renewable power is increasingly cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels, a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published today finds. Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019 shows that more than half of the renewable capacity added in 2019 achieved lower power costs than the cheapest new coal plants.

The report highlights that new renewable power generation projects now increasingly undercut existing coal-fired plants. On average, new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power cost less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation, and auction results show this trend accelerating – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely. Next year, up to 1 200 gigawatts (GW) of existing coal capacity could cost more to operate than the cost of new utility-scale solar PV, the report shows.

Replacing the costliest 500 GW of coal with solar PV and onshore wind next year would cut power system costs by up to USD 23 billion every year and reduce annual emissions by around 1.8 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2), equivalent to 5% of total global CO2 emissions in 2019. It would also yield an investment stimulus of USD 940 billion, which is equal to around 1% of global GDP.

“We have reached an important turning point in the energy transition. The case for new and much of the existing coal power generation, is both environmentally and economically unjustifiable,” said Francesco La Camera, Director-General of IRENA. “Renewable energy is increasingly the cheapest source of new electricity, offering tremendous potential to stimulate the global economy and get people back to work. Renewable investments are stable, cost-effective and attractive offering consistent and predictable returns while delivering benefits to the wider economy.”

“A global recovery strategy must be a green strategy,” La Camera added. “Renewables offer a way to align short-term policy action with medium- and long-term energy and climate goals.  Renewables must be the backbone of national efforts to restart economies in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. With the right policies in place, falling renewable power costs, can shift markets and contribute greatly towards a green recovery.”

Renewable electricity costs have fallen sharply over the past decade, driven by improving technologies, economies of scale, increasingly competitive supply chains and growing developer experience. Since 2010, utility-scale solar PV power has shown the sharpest cost decline at 82%, followed by concentrating solar power (CSP) at 47%, onshore wind at 39% and offshore wind at 29%.

Costs for solar and wind power technologies also continued to fall year-on-year. Electricity costs from utility-scale solar PV fell 13% in 2019, reaching a global average of 6.8 cents (USD 0.068) per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Onshore and offshore wind both declined about 9%, reaching USD 0.053/kWh and USD 0.115/kWh, respectively.

Recent auctions and power purchase agreements (PPAs) show the downward trend continuing for new projects are commissioned in 2020 and beyond. Solar PV prices based on competitive procurement could average USD 0.039/kWh for projects commissioned in 2021, down 42% compared to 2019 and more than one-fifth less than the cheapest fossil-fuel competitor namely coal-fired plants. Record-low auction prices for solar PV in Abu Dhabi and Dubai (UAE), Chile, Ethiopia, Mexico, Peru and Saudi Arabia confirm that values as low as USD 0.03/kWh are already possible.  

For the first time, IRENA’s annual report also looks at investment value in relation to falling generation costs. The same amount of money invested in renewable power today produces more new capacity than it would have a decade ago. In 2019, twice as much renewable power generation capacity was commissioned than in 2010 but required only 18% more investment.  

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Hydrogen in North-Western Europe: A vision towards 2030

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North-West Europe has a well-developed hydrogen industry that could be at the edge of an unprecedented transformation should governments keep raising their ambitions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new joint report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Clingendael International Energy Programme (CIEP). 

The report, Hydrogen in North-Western Europe: A vision towards 2030, explores hydrogen developments, policies and potential for collaboration in the region. It was commissioned to inform discussions among governments from North-West Europe about the potential development of a regional hydrogen market. This intergovernmental dialogue was established at the Clean Energy Ministerial Hydrogen Initiative in 2020.

The report finds that the current policy landscape provides some momentum for the transformation of the hydrogen industry in North-West Europe towards 2030, but that it is insufficient to fully tap into the region’s potential to develop a large-scale low-carbon hydrogen value chain. More ambitious policies in line with the targets defined by the EU Green Deal or the UK Climate Change Act would drive a faster transformation.

If such a supportive policy framework were to be adopted, hydrogen demand in the region could grow by a third and low-carbon hydrogen could meet more than half of dedicated production, up from about 10% today, according to the report.

North-West European countries have already made significant progress developing their vision for the role hydrogen should play in their long-term energy strategies. These countries now face the challenge of moving beyond national discussions to establish a regional dialogue, an indispensable condition to develop the fully integrated hydrogen market the region needs. 

With the aim of informing this dialogue, the report identifies four priorities that should be addressed:

  • Build on the large unused potential to co-operate on hydrogen in the north-western European region.
  • Identify what is needed to develop an integrated regional market.
  • Develop supporting schemes with a holistic view of the hydrogen value chain.
  • Identify the best opportunities to simultaneously decarbonise current hydrogen production and deploy additional low-carbon supply.

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Seven Countries Account for Two-Thirds of Global Gas Flaring

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In an unprecedented year for the oil and gas industry, oil production declined by 8% in 2020, while global gas flaring reduced by 5%, according to satellite data compiled by the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR). Oil production dropped from 82 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2019 to 76 million b/d in 2020, as global gas flaring reduced from 150 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2019 to 142 bcm in 2020. Nonetheless, the world still flared enough gas to power sub-Saharan Africa. The United States accounted for 70% of the global decline, with gas flaring falling by 32% from 2019 to 2020, due to an 8% drop in oil production, combined with new infrastructure to use gas that would otherwise be flared.

Gas flaring satellite data from 2020 reveals that Russia, Iraq, Iran, the United States, Algeria, Venezuela and Nigeria remain the top seven gas flaring countries for nine years running, since the first satellite was launched in 2012. These seven countries produce 40% of the world’s oil each year, but account for roughly two-thirds (65%) of global gas flaring. This trend is indicative of ongoing, though differing, challenges facing these countries. For example, the United States has thousands of individual flare sites, difficult to connect to a market, while a few high flaring oil fields in East Siberia in the Russian Federation are extremely remote, lacking the infrastructure to capture and transport the associated gas.

Gas flaring, the burning of natural gas associated with oil extraction, takes place due to a range of issues, from market and economic constraints, to a lack of appropriate regulation and political will. The practice results in a range of pollutants released into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon (soot). The methane emissions from gas flaring contribute significantly to global warming in the short to medium term, because methane is over 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide on a 20-year basis.

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, oil-dependent developing countries are feeling the pinch, with constrained revenues and budgets. But with gas flaring still releasing over 400 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions each year, now is the time for action. We must forge ahead with plans to dramatically reduce the direct emissions of the oil and gas sector, including from gas flaring,” said Demetrios Papathanasiou, Global Director for the Energy and Extractives Global Practice at the World Bank.

The World Bank’s GGFR is a trust fund and partnership of governments, oil companies, and multilateral organizations working to end routine gas flaring at oil production sites around the world. GGFR, in partnership with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Colorado School of Mines, has developed global gas flaring estimates based upon observations from two satellites, launched in 2012 and 2017. The advanced sensors of these satellites detect the heat emitted by gas flares as infrared emissions at global upstream oil and gas facilities.

“Awareness of gas flaring as a critical climate and resource management issue is greater than ever before. Almost 80 governments and oil companies have committed to Zero Routine Flaring within the next decade and some are also joining our global partnership, which is a very positive development. Gas flaring reduction projects require significant investment and take several years to produce results. In the lead-up to the next UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow, we continue to call upon oil-producing country governments and companies to place gas flaring reduction at the center of their climate action plans. To save the world from millions of tons of emissions a year, this 160-year-old industry practice must now come to an end.” said Zubin Bamji, Program Manager of the World Bank’s GGFR Partnership Trust Fund.

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IEA supports Indonesia’s plans for deploying renewable energy

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The IEA is carrying out a large work programme on power system enhancement with the Government of Indonesia to help it modernise the country’s electricity sector, including support for overcoming challenges inherent in integrating variable renewables like wind and solar PV.

As part of the work programme, the IEA hosted a series of webinars in early 2021 where Indonesia’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources and national power utility PLN could learn from other countries’ experiences of integrating and setting targets for variable renewable energy.

An introductory session on the principles of integrating renewable energy was held ahead of the country specific sessions. In this session, the IEA presented its framework for renewable integration phases to the Ministry and PLN, highlighting the different challenges often faced during renewable integration as well as what flexibility options can be deployed to tackle these challenges.

In the first country session, IEA presented the main findings of the Thailand flexibility study that the Agency carried out in cooperation with EGAT, the Thai electricity utility. The study shows that Thailand has the technical capability to integrate larger shares of variable renewables, but that the lack of commercial flexibility is a major barrier for operating the power system in a more flexible way and thus is the main obstacle for integrating large amounts of renewables.

In the second country session, the Danish Energy Agency presented its work programme with the Government of Viet Nam. The sessions focused on important aspects for integration of renewables, such as the assessing the needs and implications of reserves and forecasting. The session also included a discussion on the main learning points from the boom in rooftop solar that Viet Nam has experienced in 2020. 

The third and last country session was on India. The IEA presented both national as well as state-level modelling in order to show some of the contextual differences between national models and models that focus on specific geographical regions. In India, the spot market accounts for only 10% of electricity generation, which shows that India, like Thailand, has some issues with commercial flexibility. The discussion also covered India’s level of dependency on physical power purchase agreements and its impacts on the flexibility of the power system.

All sessions were held behind closed doors to allow for an open discussion between the participating organisations on the issues of renewable integration and possible ways of addressing barriers. The IEA will continue the work with the Indonesian Ministry and PLN on this topic in order to facilitate a path towards a clean, affordable, secure and modern power sector in Indonesia.

This work in Indonesia is undertaken within the Clean Energy Transitions in Emerging Economies programme.

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