The long road from Paris: the carbon impact of new power generation

Over the next decades, the planet’s energy challenge will be resolving how hundreds of millions of people can gain access to electricity while meeting climate targets. To do so, means cutting the carbon emission intensity of power plants  - that is, reducing the amount of CO2 that is spewed out for each megawatt generated.

Antiquated so-called subcritical coal-fired power plants have an emissions intensity of just under 1,000 kg of CO2 per megawatt-hour. Because they are cheap, these plants are still being built, particularly in the developing world and emerging economies. More modern, highly efficient coal-fired power plants have an intensity of around 800. A natural gas turbine can reach about 350, while a coal plant equipped with carbon capture – such as the innovative Boundary Dam CCS project in Canada – can release less than 130 kg of CO2 per megawatt-hour. At the very end of the spectrum, renewable sources like wind and solar have zero emissions.

Taken altogether, the current average  intensity of power generation today is just over 500 kg of CO2 per megawatt-hour. In 2015 the average intensity of new power generation coming online was 420 – signalling an improvement of the average. Yet this is still far from where we need to be to reach our climate goals: a global average of 100 kg of CO2 per megawatt hour from all generation by the late 2030s.

The good news, highlighted in IEA’s World Energy Investment 2016, is that a major shift in investment towards low-carbon sources of power generation is underway. New low-carbon generation – renewables and nuclear – from capacity coming online in 2015 is expected to exceed the entire growth of global power demand that year. Renewable electricty investment, primarily in wind, solar PV and hydropower, was almost $290 billion.

Yet in order to achieve a low-carbon transition consistent with a 2°C degree climate pathway, this rate of investment in energy efficiency, renewables and other low-carbon technologies needs to be increased markedly by the mid-2020s. It is up to policymakers to ensure that the right policies are in place to encourage this investment, and ensure that the world can meet twin goals of increasing access to energy for those who currently live without, while ensuring a clean, sustainable and secure energy system.