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A reality check for renewable energy

The clean-and-safe energy revolution is not imminent. In fact, according to the information compiled by Looking Ahead: The 50 Global Trends That Matter,1an annual compendium of data and graphics on subjects ranging from economics to demography to energy, the majority of the planet’s electricity needs will still be fueled by coal and natural gas in 2040—despite strong growth in nonhydro renewables such as wind, solar, and geothermal. The report also expects the shale phenomenon to abate, with Saudi Arabia reasserting itself as the world’s leading oil producer in 2030.

Looking Ahead, which is produced by an independent think tank supported by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Court, does not take a view on these trends; instead, it simply lays out the best available information from a wide variety of sources, including governments, consultancies, think tanks, corporations, and multilateral institutions. The overriding aim of the publication is to highlight issues that matter in compelling visualizations that make it easier for readers to grasp a large amount of interlinked data—and thus better understand both the nature of the problems the world faces and how to address them.

By Scott Nyquist and James Manyika

Global context, March 29, 2016

McKinsey Quarterly

The clean-and-safe energy revolution is not imminent. In fact, according to the information compiled by Looking Ahead: The 50 Global Trends That Matter,1an annual compendium of data and graphics on subjects ranging from economics to demography to energy, the majority of the planet’s electricity needs will still be fueled by coal and natural gas in 2040—despite strong growth in nonhydro renewables such as wind, solar, and geothermal. The report also expects the shale phenomenon to abate, with Saudi Arabia reasserting itself as the world’s leading oil producer in 2030.

Looking Ahead, which is produced by an independent think tank supported by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Court, does not take a view on these trends; instead, it simply lays out the best available information from a wide variety of sources, including governments, consultancies, think tanks, corporations, and multilateral institutions. The overriding aim of the publication is to highlight issues that matter in compelling visualizations that make it easier for readers to grasp a large amount of interlinked data—and thus better understand both the nature of the problems the world faces and how to address them.

The book details an energy world of disruption and contradiction, mingled with continuity and a dash of hope. For example, as the world again seeks to devise ways and means to curb the greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change, we find nonhydro renewables could more than triple their share of the global power supply by 2040. And the development of renewables isn’t just a rich-country trend. Among the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which mostly includes highly developed countries, renewables are expanding by 4.6 percent a year. Among those outside the OECD, the figure is 7.4 percent. In the next 25 years, renewables will account for an estimated 43 percent of Africa’s new power plants, 48 percent of Asia’s, and 63 percent of Latin America’s. Asia alone is projected to add 1,587 renewable-power plants, almost as many as the rest of the world combined.

Here’s the contradiction. Even after that boom in renewables, the sector’s total share of global electricity generation is estimated to be only 17 percent by 2040, because coal (31 percent) and natural gas (24 percent) will continue to be low-cost and reliable sources of power (Exhibit 1).

Read more at McKinsey Quarterly

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