Fossil fuels will peak in the 2020s as renewables supply all growth in energy demand

Rapid global growth of clean technologies will see fossil fuel demand peak in the 2020s, putting trillions at risk for unsavvy investors oblivious to the speed of the unfolding energy transition, finds a new Carbon Tracker report, funded by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

Demand for coal, gas and oil is stalling because the cost of renewables and battery storage is falling fast, emerging economies are pursuing clean energy, and governmental policy is being driven by the need to slash emissions, control climate change and reduce air pollution.

Kingsmill Bond, Carbon Tracker New Energy Strategist and report author of the report, said:

2020 Vision: Why You Should See Peak Fossil Fuels Coming shows that solar and wind will displace all growth in fossil fuels as they continue to expand against a backdrop of falling energy demand. With global energy demand expected to grow at 1-1.5% and solar and wind at 15-20% a year, fossil fuel demand will peak between 2020 and 2027, most likely 2023.

The impacts of the energy transition will be colossal:

· The fossil fuel sector has invested an estimated $25 trillion in infrastructure and there will be systemic risk to financial markets as they seek to digest vast amounts of stranded assets. 

· The transition will directly affect companies that compose up to a quarter of equity indexes and debt markets, hitting banking, capital goods, transport and automotive sectors.

· Fossil fuel exporting countries will suffer. Russia is one of 12 countries where fossil fuel rents account for 10% or more of GDP.

Kingsmill Bond said:

Incumbent industries have typically seen demand peak when the challenger was still very small, at around 2%-3% of total sales. For example, demand for thermal electricity in Europe peaked in 2007 when renewables made up just 3% of total supply. As demand fell following the financial crisis and renewables grew their market share the industry was forced to write down $150 billion of assets.

Much of the fossil fuel industry appears blind to this risk. BP, OPEC, and the IEA do not expect peak fossil fuel demand for another generation or more.  Yet some forecasters such as DNV GL forecast peak fossil fuel demand in the 2020s.

The report finds that the tipping point for fossil fuel demand will come when the challenging technologies of solar and wind make up around 6% of total energy supply and 14% of global electricity supply – far below levels of penetration in many countries in Europe.

It identifies three factors driving the energy transition.

1. Costs of solar PV, wind and battery storage are falling fast and they are now able to compete with fossil fuels without subsidies. Costs have fallen at around 20% for each doubling in capacity and this is expected to continue. By 2020 renewables will be cheaper than fossil fuels in every major region of the world, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. 

2. Emerging markets are driving growth in energy demand and choosing renewables over fossil fuels. They have less fossil fuel legacy infrastructure, rising energy dependency, more pollution and are keen to seize the opportunities renewables have to offer. 

China and India are already choosing solar and wind over fossil fuels. China overtook the United States as the largest deployer of solar and wind capacity in 2012 and electric cars in 2016. The IEA predicts that 27% of energy-demand growth in the next 25 years will come from India and 19% from China.

3. Governmental policy is supporting these trends. “The need to limit carbon emissions, the desire to breathe clean air and the drive for energy independence all mean that global regulatory pressure on the fossil fuel industry will only increase,” said Kingsmill Bond. 

The report identifies four phases in the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables: innovation; peaking; rapid change; and endgame. It shows that each energy demand sector in every country is moving through these stages, led by the electricity sector. Difficult issues around winter heat, airplane fuel and renewable intermittency will not delay peak fossil fuel demand and are likely to be addressed in the endgame phase when demand is already falling.

Carbon Tracker warns that the first impacts of the energy transition are already being felt, and not just in the European electricity market, with incumbents hit as demand peaks:

· Coal-fired and gas-fired power plants in Europe and parts of the US are already being closed down because they are uneconomic; in the last 12 months, China has halted construction of 100GW of coal power.

· Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private sector coal producer, went bankrupt in 2016, two years after global coal demand peaked. The industry built capacity for demand from India and other emerging markets that never materialised.

· In 2017 electric vehicles were 3 million out of 800 million cars globally, but 22% of growth in car sales, and are set to provide all growth in car sales in the early 2020s. This has spurred most leading car companies to refocus their strategy on electric vehicles and by 2018 they had committed $90 billion.

Kingsmill Bond said: 

Last updated September 11, 2018

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