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October 15, 2021

Renewables will account for most global generation increases, but coal use remains high

world net electricity generation by source
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2021 (IEO2021) Reference case

In the Reference case of our International Energy Outlook 2021 (IEO2021), where we assume current laws and regulations continue into the future, we project that renewable resources—particularly solar and wind—will be the largest contributor to the growth in electricity generation through 2050. However, certain regions will still mainly use coal resources for electricity generation.

Of the world’s existing coal-fired generating capacity, 99% consists of boilers and steam turbine units that are as much as 30% less efficient than natural gas-fired combined-cycle units that use the latest technology. Because natural gas-fired generators are more efficient than coal-fired generators at converting fuel to electricity, natural gas-fired generation is often a lower-cost option, even if the fuel price of natural gas is slightly higher than the fuel price of coal.

However, the absence of regional carbon policies or regulations along with rising natural gas prices after 2030—particularly in Asia and in regions that rely on higher-cost liquefied natural gas (LNG)—is likely to make coal the most economical generation fuel to pair with increased intermittent generation from wind and solar. This shift reverses the trend observed over recent decades. Although the cost of mining coal will likely raise coal prices after 2030, we project that coal prices will remain low relative to natural gas prices and provide a cost-competitive option to natural gas-fired generation.

Increases in coal-fired generation in Other non-OECD Asia—which includes Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand, among other countries—will account for over 75% of our projected increase in global coal-fired generation from 2030 to 2050. For Other non-OECD Asia, we project that renewable energy sources will account for about 60% of the generation increase over the projection period, primarily from wind and solar. Coal-fired generation will account for nearly all of the remaining growth.

other non-OECD Asia net electricity generation by source
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2021 (IEO2021) Reference case

Other non-OECD Asia is a geographically diverse region. Several countries in the region have limited domestic natural gas resources and have constrained access to natural gas pipelines and LNG regasification terminals. In 2030, we project that coal-fired generation will start displacing some natural gas-fired generation in Other non-OECD Asia because of abundant coal resources that can be competitively mined, natural gas prices that are projected to increase after 2030, and a lack of carbon policies or regulations in the region. Coal-fired generation will steadily increase in Other non-OECD Asia through 2050; coal’s share of the region’s generation mix is projected to increase from 33% in 2020 to almost 50% in 2050.

Principal contributor: Kenneth Dubin