Chart: What will a net-zero grid energy mix actually look like?

Massive amounts of new wind and solar will be a make-or-break ingredient.

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Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format. Canary thanks Natural Power for its support of this feature.

Solar power generated less than 4 percent of the world’s electricity in 2021; by 2050, solar’s share needs to jump to 33 percent. Wind power produced less than 7 percent of electricity globally last year; by 2050, that needs to grow to 35 percent. So said the International Energy Agency last year when it laid out an ambitious roadmap for getting the world to net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury — one of the huge and necessary steps for keeping climate chaos in check.

What will a clean power grid look like?

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A bar chart comparing the U.S. grid's energy mix in 2020 to estimates of what it might look like in 2030 and 2050
Global electricity generation by source — actual in 2020 and the International Energy Agency's net-zero goals for 2030 and 2050. Other renewables = geothermal, solar thermal and marine energy. CCUS = carbon capture, utilization and storage. Chart: Canary Media; Source: International Energy Agency, Net Zero by 2050 (2021)

In IEA’s 2050 net-zero scenario, solar photovoltaics and wind power will be the stars of the show — the power couple, as it were (ahem) — together providing a combined 68 percent of all electricity. Other renewable sources, such as geothermal and tidal energy, are expected to play supporting or bit roles in the 2050 grid, as are hydropower, nuclear power, hydrogen-based energy, and fossil fuels with carbon capture.

Of course, no one really knows how things might shake out nearly three decades down the line. If the world does manage to transition to a net-zero grid by 2050, each technology’s share will surely deviate to some degree from the exact proportions IEA has envisioned.

But there’s a clear takeaway from this scenario: We need to build massive amounts of new solar and wind capacity. And we need batteries and other storage systems to keep the grid running smoothly as the sun and wind come and go. 

Four energy experts make this point in a recent New York Times guest essay: Ultimately, we don’t know exactly what a net-zero emissions energy system will look like, but we know enough to keep us busy for at least a decade,” they write. For the coming decade, rapidly reducing coal electricity and building extensive wind, solar and storage systems are low-cost strategies in many places. […] This is because plummeting costs make solar and wind increasingly competitive […] The next steps are clearer and more affordable than they have ever been.” Hear, hear. 

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Maria Virginia Olano is editorial and research associate at Canary Media.