Wind could power 20% of the world by 2030, if policy allows

24 October 2016
20 October 2016, Week 41, Issue 530

Tim Skelton examines the GWEC’s latest report, finding that its most ambitious scenarios appear highly unlikely

WHAT: The GWEC has outlined four scenarios for wind development over the next 15 years – although some are more likely than others.

WHY: The most ambitious scenario envisions wind meeting more than 33% of global electricity demand, but would be reliant on an unprecedented policy commitment from world governments.

WHAT NEXT: Far more likely is an IEA-backed scenario, or the GWEC’s Modest option, which envisions each country making good on existing targets and commitments, and a steady slowdown in growth. NewsBase believes that more ambitious scenarios would be exceptionally difficult to achieve.

The Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) has published its latest biennial Global Wind Energy Outlook report, in which it claims that wind energy could cover as much as a fifth of all electricity demand by 2030. However, achieving this in reality will require dramatic shifts in policy and more commitment from global governments.

The 2016 report says total global wind power installations stood at 433 GW by the end of last year, up 17% on 2014. This was made possible by around 110 billion euros (US$121 billion) of investment in new projects. China was the leading market for the seventh year in a row, but the global wind industry is now spread throughout more than 80 countries, 28 of which have more than 1 GW of installed capacity.

The wind organisation says it expects global capacity to rise by around 60 GW in 2016, to almost 500 GW, a figure backed up by the World Wind Energy Association. Although it represents a relatively minor amount in overall terms, the offshore wind market is growing rapidly with 3.4 GW of new capacity added in 2015, taking the global total above 12 GW.

Moreover, the report adds that dramatic cost reductions in recent years have made the renewable energy sector as a whole not only technically feasible, but economically competitive. As evidence of this it highlights fast-developing markets across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Four winds

Forecasting future growth, the report outlined four supply-side scenarios for the future of the wind industry in 2020, 2030, and 2050, and compared each case with two different scenarios for the development of electricity demand over the same period. The results show how the wind industry could deliver in terms of global electricity supply, cost and emissions reductions, employment and investment.

The most pessimistic of the four cases is the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) New Policies Scenario (NPS), which is based on an assessment of the current situation and signals intentions in national and international energy and climate policy, such as the emissions reduction targets that were agreed in Paris last year. In this “business as usual” situation, the report predicts global wind capacity rising to 1,260 GW by 2030, and reaching 2,870 GW by 2050.

Two ‘halfway house’ outlooks were also considered. The IEA’s 450 Scenario is based on a pathway consistent with having a 50% chance of limiting the average global temperature increase to 2°C. GWEC’s own Moderate Scenario is similar to the NPS, but it takes into account national and regional targets for the uptake of wind power and other renewable energy sources, and assumes that these targets are met.

GWEC’s Advanced Scenario (AS) is the most ambitious of the four, and outlines the extent to which the wind industry could potentially grow in its best-case ‘Wind Energy Vision’. In order to achieve this, however, it assumes an unambiguous political will on the part of global governments to commit to appropriate policies, and most importantly to stick with them.

If the AS pathway was followed, the report suggests global installed wind power capacity could reach 2,110 GW by 2030, potentially supplying 5,546 TWh of electricity and covering up to 20% of worldwide demand. Such growth, GWEC says, could create around 2.4 million new jobs, reduce carbon emissions by more than 3.3 billion tonnes per year, and attract annual investment in the region of 200 billion euros (US$220 billion).

Great rates

GWEC has broken down these scenarios into average cumulative growth rates. The IEA’s NPS shows a reasonable 12% growth in 2016, shrinking to 7% by 2020 and then then achieving annual growth in the range of 6-7% to 2030. 

Its more ambitious 450 scenario sees a smaller drop-off in growth, which holds around 8% for most of the rest of the decade, rising to 9% after 2025, and falling again after 2030. 

GWEC’s own Moderate position, while higher, is not inconceivable and envisions high investment momentum until the end of the decade. This is plausible, given that many countries have interim renewables targets to meet between 2020 and 2025, and may require significant investment in new wind capacity over the next few years. In this scenario, annual growth averages out at 15% for 2016, falling gradually to 11% by 2020, and then holding at around 7% until 2030. 

However, the AS equates to some very ambitious growth figures: 15% growth in the near term – “well below the historical average,” GWEC notes – falling to 13% by 2020 and then dropping to 6% by 2030. 

Other assumptions are built into GWEC’s modelling. One major factor is the growth of larger and more efficient turbines. Acknowledging that 20-MW turbines may be beyond the abilities of manufacturers even by the middle of the century, the authors state confidently that “it will probably not be long before we’ll see 10, 12 and 15-MW machines.” But given that 8-MW offshore turbines are only now being rolled off production lines for the industry’s newest offshore developments, they may be reaching the end of their 25-year life before 15-MW replacements are achievable.

The trend towards greater efficiency is also buoyed by the medium-term push towards adding new turbines to existing sites, a practice known as re-powering. As the authors note: “The need for substantial and increased repowering has been built into the GWEC scenarios, becoming a significant factor after 2025.”

It adds that additional technological improvements – better Lidar, for example, which can enable more accurate siting and improve capacity factors – will also be central to growth. 

Political will

“Now that the Paris Agreement is coming into force, countries need to get serious about what they committed to last December. Meeting the Paris targets means a completely decarbonised electricity supply well before 2050, and wind power will play the major role in getting us there,” GWEC Secretary General Steve Sawyer said in a statement accompanying the report. 

By 2050, investment under the AS predictions could rise to 275 billion euros (US$302 billion) per year. This could see global installed wind capacity reach 5,806 GW, with a potential output of 15,238 TWh per year, representing more than one third of the world’s electricity demand. This is, however, more than double the baseline scenario projections.

China would remain the world’s largest market with 1,789 GW of wind power, with North America having a combined 919 GW, and OECD Europe having 703 GW. The industry could be supporting 4.2 million jobs globally in 2050, the report adds. 

There is, however, a major stumbling block that could easily scupper the greener future promised by the AS predictions. The report warns that they “could only occur with comprehensive and robust climate action globally and essential political will to tackle the climate challenge.” In practice this last requirement is seldom realised. 

While its forecast of wind being able to provide one third of the world’s electricity demand is an encouraging prospect for clean energy, NewsBase believes that the chances of achieving such growth are slight. Indeed, in its own analysis, GWEC concedes that investment by international finance institutions in fossil fuels still dwarfs that of renewables, and that the variability of policy remains the greatest hurdle for the industry. Even with the successful ratification of the Paris Agreement, that variability is unlikely to subside.

For those reasons, those of us who are still around in 2050 should expect to see a figure much closer to the Council’s business-as-usual prediction.

Edited by

Andrew Dykes


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