Sustainable Recovery

World Energy Outlook Special Report
River running through a forest


The Covid-19 crisis reduced electricity demand by 20% or more in countries with full lockdown measures (IEA, 2020a). The crisis has also reduced construction activities and caused supply chain disruptions affecting all power generation technologies, as well as transmission and distribution. Total power sector revenues are set to fall by around 7% globally in 2020, mainly due to lower electricity demand.1 Electricity retailers, power generation and grid companies will share this burden. The electricity sector employed close to 17 million people in 2019, with nearly 12 million jobs in electricity generation, and over 5 million jobs related to building, operating and maintaining electricity networks. More than 4 million electricity sector jobs are in maintaining and operating power plants and networks, the remainder are associated with construction and manufacturing.

Generators also face risks posed by depressed wholesale electricity prices. Negative prices have occurred more often in markets across Europe and the United States, with the burden falling mainly on coal, gas and nuclear power, despite the low operating costs of nuclear power plants. Revenue for renewables has been more robust because of fixed price contracts, low operating costs and priority access to grids. Financial concerns will create pressures to reduce costs and may lead to a wave of layoffs for non-essential activities. Early retirements of thermal power plants, including nuclear power, threaten thousands of jobs, concentrated in Europe and the United States, while the loss of nuclear capacity will hinder climate mitigation activities.

We focus on four specific areas:

Expand and modernise grids: Grid-related measures could boost employment and deliver many long-term advantages in terms of sustainability and resilience. Efficient networks are the foundation of robust and secure power systems, and there is scope for action to reduce high-cost disruptions, improve the integration of variable renewables, and enable demand-side response and cross-border trade. In low-income countries, modernising grids would enable a number of innovative energy services that support access to electricity such as linking energy payments to mobile phones, installing local charging stations and building mini- and micro-grids. Policy makers could stimulate grid investment by raising borrowing limits, providing tax credits, expanding employee caps, streamlining permitting processes and expanding training and skills conversion programmes. 

Accelerate the growth of wind and solar PV: Wind and solar have shown a degree of immunity to the Covid-19 crisis, and will be the only source of energy to grow in 2020, although, new construction is set to decline by about 15% in 2020 (IEA, 2020b). Additional solar PV and wind power could rapidly create a large number of jobs and cost effectively reduce CO2 emissions, but this will require policy support. Auction schemes in recent years have harnessed competitive forces while enabling lower cost financing: tools that reflect market conditions and system costs will be increasingly important as wind and solar PV expand their market shares. Repowering existing wind farms and distributed solar PV offer the fastest avenues to invest capital rapidly into sustainable power generation technologies. 

Job creation per million dollars of capital investment in power generation technologies and average CO2 abatement costs


Maintain the role of nuclear and hydro power: Hydropower and nuclear power are the two largest sources of low-carbon generation today, together providing 70% of all low-carbon electricity. They help reduce fossil fuel imports, improve electricity security by adding to power system flexibility, and improve the affordability of electricity to consumers. Many facilities are ageing and face financial challenges because of lower revenues as a result of the crisis, heightening the risk of early retirements and limiting the prospects for new investment. Modernising and upgrading existing hydropower facilities and nuclear plants (for countries that intend to retain the option of nuclear power), would avoid a steep decline in low-carbon electricity generation; new construction would further boost low-carbon generation, and could also be considered where appropriate.

Manage gas- and coal-fired power generation: Natural gas and coal have supported economic development and electricity security for decades, though their roles are now changing. Coal-fired power was under pressure even before the crisis, with lower electricity demand and renewables growth leading to reduced utilisation rates and overcapacity in major developing economies. With a major drop in gas prices in 2020, the economics of coal-to-gas switching have now also improved. Nearly 130 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired capacity was under construction at the start of 2020 and a further 500 GW was in a planning phase. While these projects could boost employment, they must be balanced against commitments to reduce CO2 emissions and air pollution.

Expand and modernise grids

Electricity networks are the backbone of a secure and reliable power system: there are nearly 7 million kilometres (km) of transmission lines and 72 million km of distribution lines worldwide. Global investment in electricity networks (including sub-stations, switchgear, metering, digital infrastructure and electric vehicle fast-chargers) was around $270 billion in 2019, with distribution networks accounting for two-thirds of investment, and spending on digital grids for 15%. Delays caused by lockdowns could affect project timelines in 2020, particularly in developing economies: spending on grids is therefore likely to decline in the absence of any targeted support.

Over five million people were employed globally in 2019 to construct, operate and maintain electricity transmission and distribution networks, as well as to manufacture associated equipment. The fall in electricity demand caused by the Covid-19 crisis has reduced revenues for some network companies and placed them under strain. This is likely to make it more difficult to finance future grid extensions and upgrades, putting at risk a significant portion of the almost two million grid construction and manufacturing jobs worldwide.

Electricity networks are generally regulated businesses, and government policies to maintain and develop agile, reliable and cost-effective electricity grids depend on the circumstances of each country. Frameworks to encourage investments in grids are however essential, and should incorporate clear long-term plan plans and strategies alongside a stable regulatory framework. Transparent and efficient administrative procedures (planning, permitting) which incorporate comprehensive engagement with stakeholders are also essential. Working with network operators and the power sector, governments could develop policies that encourage or require action to:

  • Expand and accelerate modernisation of existing grids, including through the roll-out of digital infrastructure and smart grids. Possible ways of supporting this include reforming planning and consenting procedures, increasing borrowing thresholds, issuing tax credits or grants, expanding employee caps, encouraging training and skills conversion programmes and investing in research, development and innovation.
  • Scale-up investment in new transmission and distribution infrastructure, including cross-border interconnections, particularly where infrastructure has the necessary planning consents. Tax credits, loan guarantees and simplified consenting processes could help with this.
  • Accelerate the development of integrated planning to expand access to electricity in many developing countries by means of both grid infrastructure and decentralised systems.

Support for off-grid approaches will form an essential part of a national integrated strategy to bring access to electricity to those who currently lack it (860 million people in 2018). Mini-grids and stand-alone systems are the least-cost way of providing power to more than half of those that lack access (IEA, 2019a). Decentralised solutions have already provided access to essential energy services (lighting, telecommunications, pumped water, cooling and cooking) to a larger number of people: around 15 million people are connected to mini-grids in Africa (ESMAP, 2019), while around 18 million solar home systems are currently in use, serving tens of millions of people (ESMAP, 2020).

The Covid-19 crisis has severely impacted progress on energy access, and lockdown measures have put off-grid developments at risk. There are more than 1 000 firms in developing countries in the off-gird sector, employing around 500 000 people. In many countries, activities and sales have slowed or halted, and growing unemployment is dampening the capacity of customers to find the finance for these essential systems. Exempting solar components from duties and value-added taxes, removing diesel subsidies, facilitating access to public or direct foreign investment, direct funding to electrify health centres, and low-cost loans for large customers would be useful measures to support off-grid solutions.

If sufficient action were taken to put the world on track for universal access to electricity by 2030, we estimate that decentralised systems would create around 900 000 job-years within the next three years. Expansion would also provide major socio-economic benefits for connected households: for example, households that gained access to electricity could work longer days and expand their businesses. Every 100 solar home systems could generate the equivalent of 20 full‑time induced jobs – although mostly informal – with half of them for women (GOGLA, 2020). Such systems would also help to improve the quality of health services and boost food security by increasing agricultural productivity and the resilience of value chains.

Grid investments are capital-intensive undertakings that require a diverse workforce including line workers, engineers, and transmission, distribution and communication technicians. Grid investments create jobs across a variety of roles during the construction phase (engineers to plan and supervise the works, construction workers to erect the pylons and poles, electricians and technicians to connect and wire households). They also create manufacturing jobs, and a small number of long-term jobs in O&M. Job creation is higher per unit of investment for projects that involve modernising or digitalising existing networks.

Every million dollars spent modernising distribution lines would support up to six jobs for a one-year construction phase, and around two jobs in manufacturing. Investment in smart grids would create additional employment for a range of skills and support the development of new skills.

Average jobs created globally per million dollars of spending on electricity networks in the Sustainable Recovery Plan


Losses from the transmission and distribution of electricity through inefficient networks mean that additional electricity must be generated to service the same level of demand. Losses in grids resulted in around 1 gigatonne of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2) emissions in 2018. We estimate that reducing worldwide losses towards efficient levels of around 5% from as much as 18% in some regions today could reduce these emissions by over 400 Mt CO2. Options to reduce these losses include replacing transformers and power lines, and optimising the reactive power profile. Investments in smart grids would facilitate further CO₂ emissions reductions by reducing load peaks, load shifting, facilitating the integration of renewables generation, supporting the adoption of electric vehicles and improving energy efficiency.

The digitalisation of electricity systems improves reliability and reduces operating costs. Investment in smart, modern, secure and climate-proof networks also helps diversify the power mix and reduces the risk of power outages and losses in the future. The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the critical role of electricity and information and communication technologies (ICT) systems in our society, and investment could help accelerate the building of energy efficient ICT infrastructure. Modern electricity systems are also exposed to other risks from natural, technological and man-made threats. Investment is needed to safeguard electricity systems and to increase resilience in the face of these threats. In many developing economies, investment in electricity networks and mini-grids is particularly needed to increase the reliability of the network, support the connection of renewable energy and displace polluting diesel generation. 

Accelerate the growth of wind and solar PV

Wind and solar PV power technologies have rapidly become the most favoured power generation technologies in markets around the world. In 2019, capital spending in wind and solar PV made up almost half of total power plant investment. Wind and solar PV accounted for 80% of the growth in global electricity supply in 2019 and now make up the majority of global power capacity additions, up from under 20% in 2010. The rapid growth of solar PV and wind has been paired with impressive cost reductions: close to 80% on average for solar PV, 40% for onshore wind and 30% for offshore wind power over the past ten years (IRENA, 2020). 

Global solar PV and wind power capacity additions, 2010-2020e


Solar PV and wind power have so far shown a degree of immunity to the Covid-19 crisis, with renewables-based generation increasing by 3% in the first-quarter 2020. New construction has slowed, however, and global wind and solar PV additions are set to fall by 16% in 2020. Supply chains have been disrupted by measures to contain and slow the spread of Covid-19 and there have been delays due to reduced personnel availability at all stages of the supply chain, from equipment production to transporting materials, and from siting and licensing to construction work. Re-establishing these supply chains, which often involve companies in different regions of the world, requires careful cross-border collaboration.

Solar PV and wind deployment are increasingly competitive, but their deployment remains closely tied to supportive policy frameworks for renewable energy in close to 180 countries. Direct financial support for solar PV and wind is now less common than in the past, though it is still used to accelerate investment. In the United States, investment and production tax credits continue to support solar PV and wind expansion.

Incorporating market signals and reflecting the impact on system costs will be increasingly important for support measures as wind and solar PV come to represent increasing shares of electricity supply. For small-scale solar PV, incentivising self-consumption and appropriately reflecting the value to the system are top policy priorities, as new opportunities arise from more digitalised power systems. In the wake of the Covid‑19 crisis, policy tools that aim to reduce tax burdens may need to shift towards grants to increase the efficacy of support, as was done following the 2008 financial crisis. Auction schemes are also gaining in popularity for utility-scale projects and now support more than half of all renewables deployment in the near term. These schemes help to harness competitive forces so as to drive down technology prices, control financial commitments and reduce financing costs by minimising price risks. Policy makers are also paying increasing attention to the importance of diversifying supply chains for critical minerals needed for solar PV and wind (IEA, 2020c).

There are about 5 million jobs are associated with the solar and wind industries (IRENA, 2019). We estimate that these account for nearly one-third of global power sector employment. A wide range of skills are needed across value chains. About half of the solar workforce is local, and works on project development, installation and O&M activities for large- or small-scale projects. There are close to two million solar manufacturing jobs worldwide: China has around 70% of global PV component manufacturing capacity, and Southeast Asia has around 10%. In the wind industry, most manufacturing takes place in the United States, Europe, China and India.

Annual electricity generation per million dollars of capital investment in solar PV and wind power, 2010 compared to 2020e


Falling costs for new solar PV and wind projects over the past decade have made capital investment far more productive. The expected annual generation from investment in solar PV in 2020 is more than seven-times the amount for the same investment in 2010: for onshore wind it has nearly doubled and for offshore wind it has risen by over 60%.

Solar is the most labour-intensive power generation technology. For utility-scale solar PV, 1 million dollars of capital spending now creates about 3 local construction jobs and about 6 manufacturing jobs. Rooftop solar PV is more labour intensive and creates around 10 construction jobs for the same investment.

Wind power is less labour intensive. Onshore wind power projects create about one job in construction and one-half in manufacturing per million dollars invested. Offshore wind creates about one-fifth as many construction jobs but twice the number of manufacturing jobs per unit of investment.

There are over 600 000 O&M jobs worldwide today in solar PV and wind. Utility-scale solar PV creates between 0.3-0.4 O&M jobs per million dollars invested, on a par with thermal power plants; rooftop solar PV creates three-times as many O&M jobs per unit of investment. The number of O&M jobs created per million dollars invested in wind is much smaller.

Solar PV and wind power offer opportunities to deploy capital rapidly at both new and existing sites. New projects can be constructed quickly once permits are in place. The streamlining of administrative processes would help to speed up projects further. For projects that have chosen sites and obtained the necessary licences, the construction phase can often be completed in less than a year. Rooftop solar PV installation draws on widely available skills and can also be scaled up quickly.

Projects to repower existing sites can generally deploy capital even more quickly because they do not have to manage pre-development or site preparation and there are fewer permitting processes. There are significant opportunities to repower ageing wind farms by upgrading turbines and other components: over the past three years, about $13 billion was invested to repower wind parks in the United States and Europe, and there is potential for nearly twice that amount to be invested in the next three years (IEA, 2020d). Opportunities are more limited for repowering solar PV as the vast majority of existing capacity has been built within the past decade. Repowering wind and solar projects are as cost effective as new projects in reducing power sector emissions. 

Solar PV and wind power are in the vanguard of clean energy transitions. They are widely available at commercial scale and are a cost-effective means of reducing CO2 emissions, while at the same time lowering local air pollution and reducing energy-related water use.

The extent of CO2 emission reductions depends on the type of power plant that is displaced. Many developing economies are currently heavily reliant on coal-fired generation: around 65-75% of electricity generation in China and India, and about 40% in Southeast Asia comes from coal. When displacing coal-fired generation, a 1 GW solar PV project reduces emissions by close to 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (Mt CO2) annually. With higher average capacity factors, 1 GW of wind power avoids about 3 Mt CO2 emissions per year for onshore projects and over 3.5 Mt CO2 for offshore sites. Natural gas is the largest source of electricity in most advanced economies: where gas is displaced rather than coal, the associated CO2 emissions reductions from new solar PV and wind projects would be cut by more than half.

Accelerating the construction of utility-scale wind and solar PV requires investments in grid infrastructure to connect projects and to support integration of their variable output. The availability of dispatchable sources of electricity is also critical to integrating variable renewables. New wind and solar PV projects would ideally be located close to demand centres to minimise integration issues. A surge in rooftop solar PV may require some reinforcing of distribution grids to maintain reliability to all consumers.

Current supply chain issues are raising concerns about reliance on relatively few equipment providers, particularly solar panels. For manufacturers, the availability of critical minerals and sustainability of extraction is also of some concern: these minerals include rare earth elements such as neodymium, which is used in large onshore and offshore wind turbines.

Maintain the role of hydro and nuclear power

Hydropower is the largest low-carbon source of electricity worldwide today and nuclear power is the second-largest source. Together, they represent almost 30% of global electricity supply and provide 70% of low-carbon electricity generation. In 2019, capital spending on new and existing projects was over $50 billion globally for hydropower and nearly $40 billion for nuclear power. In advanced economies, nuclear power is the largest low-carbon source of electricity by a wide margin, but its future role is uncertain as ageing plants begin to shut down. Without additional lifetime extensions, nearly 40% of the nuclear reactor fleet in advanced economies will retire by 2030. Many hydropower facilities in advanced economies are also several decades old.

Global low-carbon generation by source, 2010-2020e


Hydro and nuclear power have proven relatively resistant to the Covid-19 crisis to date, but challenging conditions have worsened in key markets where they are exposed to wholesale price or volume risk. The resulting reduction in revenues and the uncertain pace of recovery puts at risk capital flows for both hydro and nuclear power, which are more often exposed to market prices and volumes than other low-carbon sources. Under these conditions, the hurdle for investment in either existing or new projects is very high. In terms of CO2 emissions, a lack of new investment in hydro and nuclear power risks undermining the emissions reductions that derives from growth in other low-carbon sources of electricity.

Hydro and nuclear power development require sustained support from governments. Both technologies are capital intensive, and projects can be among the largest in the energy sector in terms of total investment. For example, first-of-a-kind nuclear reactors, mega-hydropower projects and large refurbishment programmes can each require more than $10 billion in capital spending. Nuclear lifetime extensions of 20 years cost between $0.5‑1.1 billion per GW.

With long development times and high capital requirements, finding ways to limit risks and facilitate low-cost financing is clearly very important. Direct financial support is not always necessary: long-term power purchase agreements or feed-in tariffs can offer a degree of price certainty and have been used extensively in China. Loan guarantees and preferential loans, where available, can also lower the cost of financing. Five states in the United States, for example, have provided zero-emission credits to recognise the low-carbon contributions of nuclear power and keep several reactors in operation in the face of challenging market conditions. Market-based solutions, such as carbon pricing or capacity payments, could significantly improve the financial position of both nuclear and hydropower. Enhanced flexibility markets could also bolster the economics of hydropower.

Hydropower employs about 2 million people globally, over two-thirds of them in local jobs concerned with operating and maintaining existing facilities. Nuclear power provides over 800 000 jobs, about half of which are located at reactors. New construction of nuclear power projects has been most prominent in recent years in emerging markets, including India and China, although several advanced economies continue to support nuclear power. The development of new hydropower projects is most active in China, Latin America and Africa.

Existing hydropower projects can be upgraded by replacing turbines to increase maximum output or adding new pumping facilities to support more flexible operations. Upgrades and construction work at hydropower projects create about 3 jobs per million dollars of capital spending. Nuclear lifetime extensions create about 2-3 jobs per million dollars of capital spending, as well as preserving local O&M jobs.

Accelerating the deployment of new hydro or large-scale nuclear projects can be challenging: siting can be a lengthy process, and project development may take several years even under the best conditions before construction can begin. Nonetheless, there are a handful of shovel-ready nuclear power projects around the world, including in Europe, which would benefit from greater capital availability. Interest in small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) is growing among policy makers and investors, in part due to the difficulties associated with financing large projects.

Hydro and nuclear power are making a significant contribution to emissions reductions. Without further nuclear lifetime extensions in advanced economies, for example, clean energy transitions would require around $80 billion additional investment per year and consumer electricity bills would be around 5% higher (IEA, 2019b). 

In many countries, growth in hydro and nuclear along with expansion of solar PV and wind power would reduce the need for coal-fired power. If additional output displaces coal-fired generation, then 1 GW of nuclear power avoids about 6 million tonnes (Mt) of direct CO2 emissions per year2. Hydro tends to have a lower utilisation rate than nuclear (because of seasonal variations), but 1 GW of hydro capacity nevertheless avoids about 3 Mt CO2 emissions. In advanced economies, higher output from hydro or nuclear mainly affects the amount of gas-fired generation and savings from avoided emissions therefore are lower.

Annual direct CO2 emissions avoided per 1 GW of installed capacity by technology and displaced fuel


Hydro and nuclear power are fundamental to electricity security in many regions since they have high availability and are dispatchable, low-carbon sources of electricity. Hydropower is an important source of power system flexibility in many regions and has played a central role in accommodating sharp reductions in electricity demand in several countries during lockdowns related to the Covid-19 crisis. Nuclear power tends to operate at constant levels of output, but can also provide flexibility. In France, for example, nuclear power provides around three-quarters of electricity supply today, and a significant portion of the nuclear fleet regularly operates in a load-following mode.

Hydro and nuclear power increase fuel diversity and self-sufficiency. Nuclear fuel is only available from a small number of suppliers, but refuelling is required only once every 18 months to two years. At the same time, appropriate safeguards are critically important in the nuclear fuel cycle, from mining to enrichment, fabrication and waste disposal.

When managed well, hydropower can also provide critical water-related services that support irrigation, flood prevention and drought control. However, water withdrawals and consumption can be a concern for both technologies. Hydropower is subject to seasonal variations determined by water availability, and there are risks that climate change could permanently reduce water availability in some regions, although other regions may see an increase. Nuclear power is one of the most water-intensive power technologies and is often located on coastlines to ensure a critical supply of water for cooling reactors.

Both hydro and nuclear power are less dependent on critical minerals in their designs and operations than other low-carbon technologies.

Manage gas- and coal-fired power generation

In 2019, coal was the largest source of electricity at 36%, followed by natural gas at 23%, although both gas- and coal-fired generation are set to fall in 2020. Coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of energy-related CO2 emissions globally, at about 10 Gt per year; even without new additions they could remain so for decades to come without concerted action including the deployment of carbon capture, utilisation and storage technologies (IEA, 2019c). Gas-fired generation, which has grown more any other source over the last decade, emitted about 3 Gt CO2 in 2018 and 2019.

Gas-fired electricity generation by region, 2010-2020e


Coal-fired electricity generation by region, 2010-2020e


The Covid-19 crisis is having significant impacts on coal and, to a lesser extent, gas. Natural gas prices, already in decline, recently touched historic lows in several regions, dropping to around $2 per million British thermal units (MBtu) in the United States, Europe and some markets in Asia. Global gas-fired generation is on track to be about 7% lower in 2020 than in 2019 owing to reduced electricity demand and growth in renewables (IEA, 2020a). Coal has been squeezed by cheaper renewables and cost competition with gas, and is set to decline by more than 10% in 2020.

Coal-fired power faces financial strains from lower output in regulated markets and depressed wholesale electricity prices in liberalised markets. New construction of coal plants may have been delayed due to temporary workforce or supply chain issues, but nearly 130 GW of coal-fired power capacity is still under construction worldwide. This project pipeline risks increasing the locked-in emissions from coal-fired power plants that already threaten to put a sustainable energy pathway out of reach.

Governments can guide power sector investment in several ways, including by providing long-term vision in line with their countries’ environmental and policy goals to ensure the consistency of decisions for new construction and existing power plants. Power sector revenues are set to fall by about 7% worldwide in 2020, though coal-fired power is likely to be hit harder. Robust carbon pricing or emission trading schemes can be effective tools to shift decisions concerning existing and new investment onto a more sustainable track. Many developing economies have fully regulated markets, in which granting gas-fired generation priority to the grid ahead of coal would help take advantage of low gas prices. Key principles related to gas- and coal-fired power might include:

  • Incentivise flexibility and reflect the contributions of all power plants to system adequacy.
  • Harness market forces by pricing negative externalities to deliver cost-effective mitigation of CO2 emissions.
  • Boost RD&D and deployment of technologies that can reduce pollution and emissions from coal and gas.

Coal-fired power plants support around 1.7 million jobs worldwide, and gas-fired power plants support around 900 000 jobs (these figures exclude coal mining and natural gas production). Almost half of these jobs are located on-site and are concerned with the O&M of existing facilities. For example, a 400 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant requires around 200 people to operate and maintain the facility: a gas-fired power plant of the same capacity requires about 100 people. Current construction activities employ about 900 000 people worldwide, and manufacturing parts for coal and gas-fired plants employs about 400 000 people. 

Around 1.5 jobs in manufacturing and 4 jobs in construction would be created per million dollars of capital investment, together with 0.4 O&M jobs in the longer term. Gas-fired power plants are less complex to build, operate and maintain, but also have lower capital costs: they create about 4.5 jobs per million dollars of capital investment during the construction phase and about 0.3 O&M jobs.

At the start of 2020, over 500 GW of coal-fired capacity was in the planning phase, including 180 GW in China, 100 GW in India and 95 GW in Southeast Asia. However the long-term operating environment is likely to be challenging, given falling costs of renewables and the environmental implications of coal-fired power. The case for building this planned new coal capacity – without CCUS – needs to be carefully weighed against the implications for local air pollution and global climate goals. 

As leading sources of electricity generation and the largest emitters of CO2 in the power sector today, the role of coal and gas is central to discussions on clean energy transitions. Coal-to-gas switching within the existing fleet of power plants as a transition measure can deliver immediate reductions of CO2 emissions and local air pollution.3 Combined-cycle gas turbines are typically more efficient than those burning coal, enabling them to emit about 50% less CO2 per unit of electricity generated than an average coal-fired power plant (without CCUS).

Based on current commodity prices – and only using existing gas-fired power plants and gas delivery infrastructure – we estimate that cost-effective coal-to-gas switching in the power sector could reduce global emissions by around 340 Mt CO2. The majority of the cost-effective potential lies in the United States and Europe: coal-to-gas switching could displace about half of the coal-fired power output in both. Elsewhere, the switching potential may not be economic at local gas prices, particularly in Asia where long-term contracts with prices pegged to a historical average of oil tend to have higher prices than seen in spot markets.

Where new capacity is under consideration, gas-fired power plants require two to three years to construct, and when in operation can reduce emissions by around 2 Mt COper GW each year if displacing coal-fired generation. New high efficiency coal-fired power plants can reduce CO2 emissions if they displace less efficient coal plants. However, without adding CCUS so as to reduce CO2 emissions by nearly 100%, or co‑firing with biomethane or biomass, the additional emissions would put long-term climate change goals at risk.

Action to reduce emissions from unabated coal-fired generation as rapidly as possible is a critical element of a sustainable energy pathway, but this – and action in due course to minimise unabated natural gas-fired generation - has to be achieved while maintaining affordability and electricity security. Coal- and gas-fired power plants currently provide a number of benefits in terms of security of supply, dispatchability and power system flexibility. They are currently the largest sources of power system flexibility globally, and (together with grid flexibility, energy storage and demand-side response measures) play a critical role in the integration of variable renewables. They also provide ancillary services that ensure power quality. 

CO2 emissions savings possible from coal-to-gas switching for different units at different gas prices, 2020


Cost-effective savings possible from coal-to-gas switching, 2020

  1. Values presented for the year 2020 are estimates.

  2. Indirect emissions during construction, operations or decommissioning are not included.

  3. Reducing methane emissions from oil and gas operations are discussed in the section "Fuels".

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