Renewables Are Just Getting Started

Taking a closer look at non-fossil energy sources

Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

British Petroleum (yeah, those) recently released the 2022 edition of their annual Statistical Review of World Energy. In it, they compile a lot of comprehensive data on global energy consumption and generation from 1965 onwards. It’s a lot of data — freely available as an Excel sheet — and a lot of the interesting conclusions from it can get drowned out in the sea of numbers.

One of the most interesting information to take a closer look at are the amount of energy we produce from sources other than fossil fuels. This category is pretty diverse — it of course includes the classic renewables like solar and wind, but also nuclear power, biomass, energy from waste, geothermal and the traditionally big player in renewables: hydropower.

We can collect these sources into three groups:

  • Nuclear
  • Hydro
  • Other renewables: solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and “other”

BP tracks the global energy generation by fuel source since 1965, given in terawatt-hours. So how has this energy generation from non-fossil sources changed over time? Let’s chart the data and have a look!

Global energy generation from non-fossil sources

What can we learn from this? Actually, a number of things.

Hydro has always been the dominant non-fossil energy source. Only for three years around 2000, nuclear power produced more energy. Hydro power grew at a nearly constant rate and seems to have accelerated around the year 2003. I am not sure what caused this increased growth, but it does coincide with the opening of China’s Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam in the world.

The nuclear industry experienced rapid growth during the 1970s and 80s, but started struggling soon after. The most notable disasters — Chernobyl and Fukishima — seemed to have an effect on public opinion and the subsequent investment decrease. After Chernobyl (1986), we still see growth, albeit at a lower speed. Even before Fukushima, however, energy generation from nuclear power plants plateaus and experiences a decline. It remains to be seen if the industry is able to make a full recovery.

The most notable line in this chart is no doubt the one of “other renewables”. From an almost imperceptible contribution until the 1990s, this group has now grown to be the second largest non-fossil energy source on the planet.

Remarkably, even solar and wind alone (fainter yellow line) account for more energy generation in 2021 than nuclear power.

The triangular inset offers another way of visualizing the distribution between the three major non-fossil energy groups. What you are looking at is called a ternary plot. Each point on the plot corresponds to a disribution between three components that are normalized, i.e., they add up to 100%.

Just like in a regular x-y axis chart, to find the values, we move along the direction indicated on the axes towards the corresponding value.

In 1965 — when our data starts — non-fossil sources were dominated by hydro power. In our ternary plot, this corresponds to a point in the lower corner. We can follow the axis lines to read off the energy composition: almost 100% hydro, almost 0% other renewables, and also 0% nuclear power (follow the axis lines in the direction indicated).

In later years, nuclear power replaces some of that hydro power. This shows up in the chart by the line moving from the lower corner straight upwards. The point near the middle of the hydro axis corresponds to 50% hydro and 50% nuclear.

Moving on, the trace changes direction and heads over to the corner of 100% renewables. The trace ends near the center point of the ternary plot, which marks the case of an even 33%/33%/33% split between the three groups.

BP also provides an analysis of the ten-year growth trend for each energy source. This allows us to look ahead one or two years.

The ten-year annual growth rates for each non-fossil energy source are:

  • Nuclear: +0.5%
  • Hydro: +2.0%
  • Geo, Biomass, Other: +6.6%
  • Wind: +15.5%
  • Solar: +31.7%

Extrapolating this trend a bit has to be done carefully, as we are dealing with exponential growth. If we project the current long-term trend ahead to 2023, we can estimate that “other renewables” will be the dominant non-fossil energy source.

While this looks impressive, we should be aware of the caveats.

First, the diagram charts energy generation, not consumption. This does not necessarily have to be the same.

Second, the diagram does not show energy from fossil fuels. This is, however, a huge chunk of the total generation, and the main driver of anthropogenic climate change. We are still a long way from net zero.

Despite the challenge before us, seeing renewables take off on an exponential trajectory should fill us with hope and confidence that we can tackle this common problem in time. We don’t really have a choice, after all. ⬢

Tools: The infographic was created using Microsoft Excel and OriginLab for basic plotting. I used Adobe Illustrator to pretty it up and add additional information. You are welcome to check out my other work on Behance.

Data: BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2022 is the source for all the data in the plot. Interesting historical points have been added from Wikipedia.

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Radiyozh

Radiyozh

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I write sporadic essays about open society, world federalism, Europe, languages, energy and climate, and whatever else I find interesting.