Another coal myth busted as developing nations turn to renewables

A new study has put paid to the myth that the world's developing nation's are keeping the coal-fired generators burning, revealing that emerging economies are not only leading global renewable energy investment and development, but have slashed their new coal plant build by nearly half.
The data, collected via the latest Bloomberg New Energy Finance Climatescope
survey, shows that sinking technology costs and innovative policy-making have allowed developing nations to seize the mantle of clean energy leadership from wealthier countries.
The report shows that in 2017, developing nations added a record 114GW of zero-carbon generating capacity of all types, 94GW of which was wind and solar – another record.
At the same time, they brought on line the least amount of new coal-fired power generating capacity since at least 2006, with a new coal build in 2017 that was 38 per cent lower than the year before, at 48GW.
That number, says BloombergNEF, not only represents half of what was added in 2015 when the market peaked at 97GW of coal commissioned, it is almost exactly half the amount of solar and wind capacity those countries added in 2017.
This is bad news for developed nation government's like Australia's Morrison Coalition, which like to argue that if Australia doesn't burn its coal in new plants, other nations will, led by the likes of China and India and our neighbours, Indonesia.
Rather, says BNEF, these countries – which, unlike many developing nations, are experiencing surging electricity demand – are playing the leading role in building cheap renewables, and in driving down even further the costs of those energy technologies.
The report says this shift in global clean energy leadership is being driven by the rapidly improving economics of clean energy technologies, most notably wind and solar.
'Thanks to exceptional natural resources in many developing countries and dramatically lower equipment costs, new renewables projects now regularly outcompete new fossil plants on price – without the benefit of subsidies,' it says.
This trend has been most apparent, it says, in the more-than-28GW contracted through tenders in emerging markets in 2017, involving bids from developers to deliver wind for as low as $17.7/MWh and solar for as little as $18.9/MWh.
Climatescope also revealed that clean energy dollars are flowing to more nations than ever, with some 54 developing countries recording investments in at least one utility-scale wind farm and 76 countries getting finance for solar projects of 1.5MW or larger across the year.
'It's been quite a turnaround,' said Dario Traum, BNEF senior associate and Climatescope project manager in comments accompanying the report.
'Just a few years ago, some argued that less developed nations could not, or even should not, expand power generation with zero-carbon sources because these were too expensive,'
'Today, these countries are leading the charge when it comes to deployment, investment, policy innovation and cost reductions.'
But this does not mean the world's climate challenge is any less daunting.
While new coal-fired capacity additions fell to their lowest level in over a decade, actual generation from coal-fired plants rose 4 per cent in 2017, to 6.4TWh.
And despite ample evidence that new-build renewables can underprice new-build coal-fired plants, 193GW of coal are currently under construction in developing nations today, according to Coalswarm data.
In terms of climate, BNEF says, the real challenge for renewables is not just to beat out new coal-fired power plants for new-build opportunities, but to displace existing coal-fired plants, many of which have just recently come on line.
Indeed, the same challenge appears to face us here Australia – although in our case, those coal plants are at the end of their lives, and not at the start.
Sophie Vorrath
Sophie is editor of OneStepOffTheGrid.com.au and deputy editor of its sister site, RenewEconomy.com.au. Sophie has been writing about clean energy for more than a decade.
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