The story of Asia-Pacific in the 21st century has been one of boom times. From the industrial miracles witnessed in Vietnam and China, and the tech revolutions of Japan and South Korea, to the commodities bonanza taking place in Australia – a country which, prior to Covid-19, did not have a recession for three decades – Asia-Pacific is now the motor of the global economy. No region has ever grown so rapidly or pulled so many people out of poverty in such a short space of time (1.1 billion since 1990).
However, among the aforementioned great powers can also be found other stories – whether of impoverished Nepal squeezed between two emerging superpowers, Pacific islands on the front line of climate change, or Bhutan, a country that famously measures its progress through a happiness metric, and is already a carbon sink.
To coincide with make-or-break climate talks at COP26, Energy Monitor is tracking the development of new power plants across the world in three interactive data stories. This is the third and final such story, with the first two covering the Americas, and Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Based on a vast power plant dataset from analytics company GlobalData, we are looking at where and what kind of new plants are being built, and what that says about the global energy transition. They range from facilities under construction, to those seeking permits or financing, to those that have only been announced. The article concludes with an assessment of how far along governments are in steering their countries towards net zero.
Power plants do not tell us everything about the transition, but power plants are a strong indicator of the extent to which we are on track to net zero, not least because all energy models agree that a low-carbon future requires massive electrification.
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero Pathway, published in May, estimates that global electricity demand will more than double between 2020 and 2050, gaining “dominance in heating, transport and industrial sectors”. The share of steel produced from electric arc furnaces will increase from 20% to 53%, the share of electric vehicles (EVs) will increase from 1% to 53%, and heat pumps will meet 55% of heat demand, up from 7% today.
On the maps that follow, one hexagon represents aggregated energy capacity of power plants located within a ~125km radius.
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Solar and wind
Getting Asia-Pacific’s energy transition right will be crucial to tackling climate change. The region is home to 47% of the world’s population, and its emissions are now at more than 50% of the global total. As is the case in other regions, solar and wind are set to be the driving force of that transition, given both their low price and the fact they can be installed in a wide variety of landscapes.
The IEA believes that by 2030, global wind and solar capacity additions must hit 390GW and 630GW, respectively, five times higher than the average over the last three years, to get the world on track to net zero.
Wind power is set to develop in a big way in Asia-Pacific between now and 2030, shows GlobalData’s dataset. Total capacity currently stands at 347GW, and will grow by a further 285GW from new projects coming online between now and 2030.
Countries with major planned capacity increases include Japan (43GW), Australia (37GW), Vietnam (31GW) and South Korea (23GW).
Poorer nations including Nepal and Papua New Guinea have no capacity in the pipeline, according to GlobalData.
The biggest wind story in Asia-Pacific is China. The communist superpower has 96GW of capacity in the works. This is more than a third of the total upcoming capacity across the region, and will be added to the 289GW already in the country.
Alongside wind, solar power is also booming across Asia-Pacific. The 438GW that currently exists across the region is set to be boosted by a further 357GW under current plans.
Countries including Australia (59GW), China (56GW), the Philippines (19GW) and Vietnam (17GW) have major new solar capacity on the way.
A total of 3,432 upcoming solar plants across Asia-Pacific (compared with 1,179 for wind) demonstrates solar power’s versatility, that is, its ability to be installed in nearly all landscapes.
The regional leader for upcoming solar plants is India. The subcontinent has 155GW of solar in the pipeline, says GlobalData – a figure that will almost quadruple its current capacity of 41GW.
Particularly high amounts of capacity are on the way in the north-west and south of the country.
The single largest upcoming solar plant in Asia-Pacific is the massive 14GW Tennant Creek Solar Park, in the middle of the outback in Northern Australia. Set to be the world’s biggest solar plant upon completion, it will be spread over 12,000 hectares, with power exported to Singapore via a 3,800km interconnector.
Studies show some hydropower plants can have emissions comparable to fossil fuel plants, due to the massive amounts of concrete involved in building them and from vegetation breakdown and decay when large areas are flooded.
However, hydropower can provide relatively reliable baseload power, and its output can be paused or dispatched when other, less reliable sources of power fall short. The IEA anticipates annual hydropower additions would have to grow from the current rate of 31GW per year to 120GW per year by 2030 to reach net zero by 2050.
Hydropower is the second-largest source of power in Asia-Pacific after coal, with 582GW of existing capacity and 412GW on the way.
South East Asia is investing particularly heavily in new hydropower, with Myanmar (31GW), the Philippines (16GW) and Vietnam (9GW) all set to see significant capacity increases.
Indonesia is also building new dams across its many islands, with 21GW in the pipeline. The country’s significant hydropower potential is being touted as a means to move away from its heavy dependence on coal.
The other region in Asia-Pacific with masses of hydropower in the works is the Himalayan mountain range, which lies across India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and China.
Nepal – one of the poorest countries in South East Asia – has hundreds of small-scale hydropower plants in the pipeline, giving the country a total of 44GW of upcoming capacity. The country suffers from chronic power shortages, with citizens enduring power cuts of 12–18 hours per day. Politicians are now aiming to take advantage of the country’s massive hydropower potential – Nepal has around 6,000 rivers and tributaries – to address that.
Pakistan (50GW), India (91GW) and tiny Bhutan (11GW) also have significant capacity on the way, as does China (77GW).
Nuclear power is also carbon-free but it does produce large quantities of radioactive waste that has to be stored securely for hundreds of thousands of years. Many nevertheless see a role for nuclear in a clean energy future, with the IEA’s net-zero pathway anticipating nuclear output rising by 40% to 2030.
Across Asia-Pacific, 336GW of upcoming capacity is set to be added to 113GW of existing capacity.
With 246GW in the pipeline, China has by far the most ambitious plans for nuclear power. This is followed by India (63GW), Thailand (5GW) and South Korea (6GW).
Geothermal generates constant electricity using heat from the Earth’s core – but is usually only available on tectonic plate boundaries.
Across Asia-Pacific, some 8GW of new geothermal is set to be added to 6GW of existing capacity.
A geologically active archipelago of 17,000 islands with around 130 active volcanoes, Indonesia has massive geothermal potential.
The map shows a line of new geothermal plants being built across the islands of Java and Sumatra, which will boost the country’s current geothermal capacity of 2GW by a further 6GW.
Ocean energy, which can be generated from waves and tides, has seen very limited roll-out worldwide, requiring “additional policy support” to enable the “cost reductions that come with the commissioning of larger commercial plants”, says the IEA.
Just 1GW of ocean energy is currently in the pipeline in Asia-Pacific, according to GlobalData. South Korea (0.5GW) and Indonesia (0.3GW) lead the way, with each planning several prototype tidal and wave power plants.
Biomass is said to be carbon-neutral, due to the feedstock absorbing CO2 as it grows. However, many question biomass’s status as a source of “clean energy”, particularly because when a plant dies in nature, not all the stored carbon is usually released into the atmosphere, with much of it absorbed into the soil. For woody biomass, it also takes time for forests to grow.
Hundreds of new biomass plants are set to be built across Asia-Pacific, with existing capacity of 65GW set to be boosted by a further 12GW.
New plants are for the most part scattered across China (3GW), Japan (3GW) and India (2GW), the region’s three largest economies.
Removing fossil fuels from the grid is critical to reaching net zero. The IEA says advanced economies must do so by 2035, and developing countries by 2040.
Since thermal power plants have a typical lifespan of 40 years, the most logical path to net zero would mean no new fossil plants coming online – but more than anywhere else in the world, this is not what is happening in Asia-Pacific: a massive 741GW of pipeline fossil fuel capacity is set to be added to 2,182GW of existing capacity.
As is the case in both the Americas and Europe, Asia-Pacific is betting big on natural gas as a cleaner means of generating thermal power – despite repeated warnings that such a path is not compatible with net zero by mid-century.
In all, 275GW of gas plants is set to be added to 496GW of existing capacity. Vietnam (85GW), China (40GW), Bangladesh (27GW) and Indonesia (20GW) have the biggest plans.
Unlike other regions of the world, the data reveals that coal still has a massive presence in Asia-Pacific. Not only does the dirtiest of the fossil fuels possess the greatest existing capacity of any power source (1,591GW), but it also has the greatest upcoming capacity (460GW).
Countries including Vietnam (29GW), Indonesia (27GW), Bangladesh (23GW) and the Philippines (15GW) all have enormous projects on the way.
Chinese Premier Xi Jin Ping’s announced in September that China will stop funding coal abroad, while countries including Indonesia and Vietnam signalled their approval of a multilateral agreement at COP26 to phase out coal before mid-century. While this means many coal projects may never see the light of day, plants already under construction will likely not be affected – and in Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines alone, that is 33GW.
China has the biggest coal pipeline, with 184GW on the way. This is more than the country’s combined pipeline capacity for solar and wind power.
Close on China’s heels is India, with 136GW of coal in the pipeline. The map shows new plants being built all across the country. China’s announcement to stop funding coal abroad will make no difference to this since its Belt and Road infrastructure programme does not operate in India. Neither China nor India agreed to phase out coal at COP26.
Oil is not a major source of power in Asia-Pacific, following a global trend that has seen oil displaced by coal and later natural gas since oil price increases in the 1970s. The region has 96GW of oil-fired power plant capacity, 41GW of which is in Japan (China, by comparison, has just 2GW).
Some 5GW of oil power is currently in the pipeline in the region, with the Philippines (2GW) expecting to build the most.
Across much of Asia-Pacific, a transition to clean energy is barely taking place. Huge amounts of renewables are being installed, but overall, the amount of upcoming fossil fuels is barely outpaced by green alternatives: 741GW versus 1,087GW.
The technology to transition electricity systems to net-zero emissions already exists, which is why the IEA’s Net Zero Pathway sees nearly three-quarters of global emissions reductions between 2020 and 2025 taking place in the power sector. Asia-Pacific is not on track for such a transformation, and as the region of the world with the largest population, industrial sector and emissions footprint, this poses a big problem for the global energy transition.
Ever since the first COP in Berlin in 1995, it has been clear that the number one priority to really make a difference to greenhouse gas emissions is to stop burning coal, which is responsible for around 46% of emissions worldwide.
Devising a clear timeline for the phase-out of coal was originally one of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s key aims for COP26, but at both the G7 meeting in June and G20 meeting in October, the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations failed to come to a consensus on this, largely as a result of the intervention of countries in Asia-Pacific, notably China, Australia and India.
GlobalData’s dataset, which suggests coal capacity in Asia-Pacific could increase by a quarter over the next decade, shows just how stubbornly coal is clinging on – and why it has been difficult to get nations like Australia (the world’s largest coal exporter) and China to agree to a phase-out.
Economies in Asia-Pacific remain the fastest-growing in the world. If the world is to reach net zero it is crucial that this future growth is powered by renewables. All eyes are now on COP26 to see whether leaders will agree to a more rapid energy transition.