Renewables Generated Record 30% of Global Electricity in 2023: Report

With record construction of solar and wind in 2023, a new era of falling fossil generation is imminent. 2023 was likely the pivot point, marking peak emissions in the power sector.

According to a new report by think tank Ember, the renewables revolution, led by solar and wind, is breaking records and driving ever-cleaner electricity production.

The world is now at a turning point Ember says, where solar and wind not only slow emissions growth, but actually start to push fossil generation into decline. 

The expansion of clean capacity would have been enough to deliver a fall in global power sector emissions in 2023, however, drought caused a five-year low in hydropower, which created a shortfall that was met in large part by coal.

Nonetheless, the latest forecasts give confidence that 2024 will begin a new era of falling fossil generation, marking 2023 as the likely peak of power sector emissions. 

Renewables Provided 30% of Global Electricity For the First Time

In 2023, growth in solar and wind pushed the world past 30% renewable electricity for the first time. Renewables have expanded from 19% of global electricity in 2000, driven by an increase in solar and wind from 0.2% in 2000 to a record 13.4% in 2023.

China was the main contributor in 2023, accounting for 51% of the additional global solar generation and 60% of new global wind generation. Combined with nuclear, the world generated almost 40% of its electricity from low-carbon sources in 2023. As a result, the CO2 intensity of global power generation reached a new record low, 12% lower than its peak in 2007.

Solar Was the Main Supplier of Electricity Growth in 2023

Solar is leading the energy revolution. It was the fastest-growing source of electricity generation for the 19th year in a row, and surpassed wind to become the largest source of new electricity for the second year running.

Indeed, solar added more than twice as much new electricity as coal in 2023. The record surge in installations at the very end of 2023 means that 2024 is set for an even larger increase in solar generation.

Hydropower Fell to a Five-Year Low, Preventing a Fall in Emissions in 2023

Drought conditions resulted in a record fall in hydropower generation, which dropped to a five-year low. Under normal conditions, the clean capacity added during 2023 would have been enough to enable a 1.1% fall in fossil generation.

However, the shortfall in hydropower was met by an increase in coal generation, which led to a 1% increase in global power sector emissions. 95% of the coal generation rise in 2023 occurred in four countries that were severely affected by droughts: China, India, Viet Nam and Mexico.

Demand Growth Slowed in 2023, But in Future it Will Only Go Up

Global electricity demand rose to a record high in 2023, with an increase of 627 TWh which is equivalent to adding the entire demand of Canada (+607 TWh).

Nevertheless, the 2023 increase of 2.2% was below the average for recent years, due to a pronounced decrease in demand in OECD countries, notably the US (-1.4%) and the EU (-3.4%).

In contrast, the rapid demand growth in China (+6.9%) was equivalent to the total global growth in demand in 2023. More than half of the electricity demand rise in 2023 was from five technologies: electric vehicles (EVs), heat pumps, electrolysers, air conditioning and data centres.

The spread of these technologies will accelerate the growth in electricity demand, but overall energy demand will decline as electrification is much more efficient than fossil fuels.

A New Era of Declining Power Sector Emissions is About to Begin

Ember forecasts fossil generation to fall slightly in 2024, leading to larger falls in subsequent years. Demand growth in 2024 is expected to be higher than in 2023 (+968 TWh) but clean generation growth is forecast to be even greater (+1300 TWh), leading to a 2% fall in global fossil generation (-333 TWh).

Already the rollout of clean generation, led by solar and wind, has helped to slow the growth in fossil fuels by almost two-thirds in the last ten years. As a result, half the world’s economies are already at least five years past a peak in electricity generation from fossil fuels. OECD countries are at the forefront of this, with power sector emissions collectively peaking in 2007 and falling 28% since then.

Ember says the decade ahead will see the energy transition enter a new phase. A permanent decline in fossil fuel use in the power sector at a global level is now inevitable, leading to falling sector emissions.

Clean electricity additions – led by solar and wind – are already forecast to outpace demand growth in the coming decade, securing moderate reductions in fossil fuel use and hence emissions, even as demand accelerates to meet the growing needs of electrification and other booming technologies. 

Dave Jones Global Insights Programme Director at Ember said: “The renewables future has arrived. Solar in particular is accelerating faster than anyone thought possible. The decline of power sector emissions is now inevitable. 2023 was likely the pivot point – peak emissions in the power sector – a major turning point in the history of energy.”

“But the pace of emissions falls depends on how fast the renewables revolution continues. The good news is we already know the key enablers that help countries unleash the full potential of solar and wind. There’s an unprecedented opportunity for countries that choose to be at the forefront of the clean energy future. Expanding clean electricity not only helps to decarbonise the power sector. It also provides the step up in supply needed to electrify the whole economy; and that’s the real game-changer for the climate.”