Eight massive power shifts as demand for fossil fuels fades

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By Tom Randall

This article was published in Fin24

New York - The way we get electricity is about to change dramatically, as the era of ever-expanding demand for fossil fuels comes to an end - in less than a decade. That's according to a new forecast by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) that plots out global power markets for the next 25 years.

Call it peak fossil fuels, a turnabout being driven by cheaper, less polluting alternatives. It's coming sooner than we thought because electric cars and affordable battery storage for renewable power are arriving faster than expected, as are changes in China's energy future.

Here are eight massive shifts coming to power markets near you.

1. There will be no golden age of gas

Since 2008, the single most important force in US power markets has been the abundance of cheap natural gas brought about by fracking. Cheap gas has ravaged the US coal industry and inspired talk of a "bridge fuel" that moves the world from coal to renewable energy. It doesn't look like that's going to happen.

The cost of wind and solar power is falling too quickly for gas ever to dominate on a global scale, according to BNEF. The analysts reduced their long-term forecasts for coal and natural gas prices by a third for this year's report, but even rock-bottom prices won't be enough to derail a rapid global transition towards renewable energy.

"You can't fight the future," said Seb Henbest, the report's lead author. "The economics are increasingly locked in." The peak year for coal, gas, and oil: 2025.

2. Renewables attract $7.8trn

Humanity's demand for electricity is still rising, and investments in fossil fuels will add up to $2.1trn through 2040. But that will be dwarfed by $7.8trn invested in renewables, including $3.4trn for solar, $3.1trn for wind, and $911bn for hydro power. Already in many regions the lifetime cost of wind and solar is less than the cost of building new fossil fuel plants, and that trend will continue.

But by 2027, something remarkable happens. At that point, building new wind farms and solar fields will often be cheaper than running the existing coal and gas generators. "This is a tipping point that results in rapid and widespread renewables development," according to BNEF.

The pink stuff on the top of this chart is new this year. It represents flexible capacity - technology, primarily large batteries for the home and grid, that smooths out the peaks and valleys inherent in wind and solar power. By 2028, batteries will be as ubiquitous as rooftop solar is today.

3. Electric cars rescue power markets

In this discussion of peak fossil fuels, the focus is on electricity production, not transportation fuels. For cars, peak oil demand will take a bit more time. But the sudden rise of electric cars is on the verge of disrupting oil markets as well, and that has profound implications for electricity markets as more cars plug in.

In fact, electric cars couldn't come at a better time for developed economies. Take Germany, for example, where increases in efficiency mean that without electric cars, demand for electricity would be headed towardss a prolonged and destabilising decline. Electric vehicles will reverse that trend, according to BNEF.

The adoption of electric cars will vary by country and continent, but overall they'll add 8% to humanity's total electricity use by 2040, BNEF found.

4. Batteries join the grid

Renewable energy and electric cars create a virtuous cycle of demand growth. Unlike fossil fuels - where a surge of demand leads to higher prices - with new energy technologies more demand begets more scale, and that drives prices lower.

The scale up of electric cars increases demand for renewable energy and drives down the cost of batteries. And as those costs fall, batteries can increasingly be used to store solar power. In expensive electricity markets like Hawaii, battery storage for solar already makes economic sense, and it won't be long before that becomes the norm.

5. Solar and wind prices plummet

The chart below is arguably the most important chart in energy markets. It describes a pattern so consistent, and so powerful, industries set their clocks by it. It's the beautiful maths of declining solar costs.

The chart is on a logarithmic scale, so the declines are even more profound than at first glance. For every doubling in the world's solar panels, costs fall by 26%, a number known as solar's "learning rate". Solar is a technology, not a fuel, and as such it gets cheaper and more efficient over time. This is the formula that's driving the energy revolution.

Wind-power prices are also falling fast -19% for every doubling. In the next 25 years, the cost of solar power generation is expected to fall by another 60%, while wind prices will fall 41%. Wind and solar will be the cheapest forms of producing electricity in most of the world by the 2030s, according to BNEF.

6. Capacity factors go wild

One of the fast-moving stories in renewable energy is the shifts in what's known as the capacity factor. That's the percentage of a power plant's maximum potential that's actually achieved over time.

Consider a wind farm. Even at high altitudes, the wind isn't consistent and varies in strength with the time of day, weather, and the seasons. So a project that can crank out 100 megawatt hours of electricity during the windiest times might produce just 30% of that when averaged out over a year. That gives it a 30% capacity factor.

As technologies continue to improve and as project designers get smarter about their placement, the capacity factors of renewables are increasing. Here's a watercolour plot of wind power capacity factors over time. Some wind farms in Texas are now achieving capacity factors of 50%, according to BNEF.

Improving capacity factors make renewables more attractive. But capacity factors of gas and coal plants are also changing. Once a solar or wind project is built, the marginal cost of the electricity it produces is pretty much zero - free electricity - while coal and gas plants require more fuel for every new watt produced. If you're a power company with a choice, you choose the free stuff every time.

As natural gas and coal plants are increasingly idled in favour of renewables, their capacity factors will take a big hit, and lifetime cost of those plants goes up. Think of them as the expensive back-up power for cheap renewables.

7. A new polluter to worry about

China, the biggest and fastest-growing polluter, became a major global concern over the last few decades. But that perception is changing fast. China's evolving economy and its massive shift from coal to renewables mean it will have the greatest reduction in carbon emissions of any country in the next 25 years, according to BNEF. That's good news for the climate and is a significant change for the global energy outlook.

That leaves India, which is emerging as the biggest threat to efforts to curb climate change. India's electricity demand is expected to increase fourfold by 2040, and the country will need to invest in a variety of energy sources to meet this overwhelming new demand. India has hundreds of millions of people with little or no access to electricity, and the country sits atop a mountain of coal. It intends to use it.

8. The transformation continues

BNEF's outlook for carbon dioxide emissions has improved significantly over the last year, in spite of cheap fossil fuel prices. China played a big role, and the shift to renewables is happening shockingly fast - but not not fast enough to prevent perilous levels of global warming.

Without additional policy action by governments, global carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector will peak in the 2020s and remain relatively flat for the the foreseeable future. That's not enough to prevent the surface of the Earth from heating more than 2 degrees Celsius, according to BNEF. That's considered the point of no return for some of the worst consequences of climate change.

BNEF's report focuses on fundamental economics: price, demand, supply. It includes climate-related policies that have already been set into action, but doesn't make any guesses for new policies beyond those. It also doesn't include any jumps in technology that aren't clearly already under way.

That could be heartening for people concerned about climate change, because if there's one thing that energy markets have shown in the last decade, it's that there will be more surprises to come.