At 182 GW, solar power facilities accounted for half of all global capacity additions last year, with wind additions making up a quarter of new capacity and fossil-fuel additions contributing 14%, BloombergNEF said in a report released Wednesday.
However, coal-fired power production jumped an unprecedented 8.5% in 2021 to a record 9,600 TWh, helping increase global power sector carbon dioxide emissions by 7% from the year before, the research firm said in its Power Transition Trends report.
“It was a year of highs and highs, for the best and worst reasons,” Ethan Zindler, head of Americas at BNEF, said in a statement. “Renewables grew very fast, but coal’s comeback and the fact that countries – including those that have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions – continue building coal is really disconcerting.”
BNEF said three factors contributed to the surge in coal-fired generation last year: a 5.6% increase in global power production driven by a rebounding economy, lower hydroelectric generation due to droughts and higher natural gas prices.
China, India and the United States led the increase in coal-fired output, with coal generation jumping 9%, 16% and 14%, respectively, last year, according to BNEF. U.S. coal-fired generation grew by 110 TWh in 2021, the research firm said.
China’s power plant fleet accounted for 36% of the global power sector carbon emissions last year, followed by the United States at 12% and India at 8%, according to BNEF.
Coal-fired generation could increase again this year as European nations seek to offset droughts and high natural gas prices by returning mothballed plants to service or delaying planned coal plant retirements, BNEF said.
Germany, for example, this year reactivated 4.8 GW of fossil fuel power plants, including 3.2 GW of coal-fired capacity, BNEF said. Another 5.5 GW of coal is expected to return to operation this year, as well as 4 GW of nuclear capacity, the research firm said.
Half of the countries that pledged at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference to phase out coal recorded growth in coal-fired generation last year, BNEF noted.
Meanwhile, about 272 GW of wind and solar started operating last year, up from 77 GW a decade ago, according to BNEF.
“Wind and solar are now the cheapest sources of new bulk power generation in countries that make up two-thirds of world population and three-quarters of global [gross domestic product,]” BNEF said.
Fossil fuel power plant additions fell to 14% of all new capacity last year, the lowest level ever, according to the research firm. About 13 GW of coal-fired capacity was added last year, down from 52 GW in 2019 and 82 GW in 2012, BNEF said.