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8 November 2021

Energy Monitor’s power transition tracker: Europe, the Middle East and Africa

Energy Monitor analyses plans for new wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, biomass, gas and more across Europe, the Middle East and Africa in the second of three exclusive data stories to gauge the global energy transition in electricity.

By Nick Ferris and Josh Rayman

Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) contain a full spectrum of landscapes, peoples and cultures. In many ways this is an unnatural grouping, drawn together in business simply due to geographical proximity. Scratch a little deeper, however, and it becomes clear they are deeply connected parts of the world with trading or colonial relationships going back thousands of years. Both the histories and fates of countries in these regions are inexorably tied together as a result of years of interdependence and exploitation.

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 second such story, with the first covering the Americas and the third Asia-Pacific.

Solar power in Spain Photovoltaic panels for renewable electric production in Navarra, Spain. (Photo by Wang An Qi via Shutterstock)

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 IEA’s 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 will increase from 1% to 53%, and heat pumps will meet 55% of heat demand, up from 7% today.

On the map, one hexagon represents aggregated energy capacity of powerplants located within the ~125km radius.

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Solar and wind

Solar and wind power are set to be the driving force of the global energy transition due to 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.

Both technologies have “low costs, widespread availability and policy support in over 130 countries”, said the IEA in its most recent World Energy Outlook. It expects their capacity to triple over the next decade under current policies.

Already, looking at solar and wind capacity combined on the map demonstrates how much greater the energy transition being witnessed in Europe is than is the case in Africa.

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The year 2020 saw $6.7bn invested in renewables in the Middle East and Africa (population 1.7 billion), compared with $65bn in Europe (population 750 million), according to GlobalData.

Upcoming wind power projects in EMEA are nearly all in Europe. The continent already has 219GW of wind capacity, with another 290GW on the way.

This includes 65GW in the UK, 30GW in Sweden, 27GW in Spain, 24GW in Ireland and 20GW in Germany, all coming between now and 2033.

As well as thousands of onshore wind farms scattered across western and eastern Europe, there is a cluster of massive wind farms set to be built offshore by North Sea nations like the UK and Norway.

Africa and the Middle East, by contrast, have just 7GW of wind power already in existence, with 27GW on the way.

In the Middle East, Egypt (with 4GW on the way), Morocco (2GW) and Saudi Arabia (2GW) are investing the most in new wind.

The country with the most upcoming wind power in Africa and the Middle East is South Africa. The region’s most industrialised country has 11GW of wind capacity in the pipeline – as much as the rest of Africa combined.

Upcoming solar power is spread more evenly than wind power across EMEA, thanks to Africa and the Middle East having particularly good weather conditions for it. Solar panels are also less complicated to install.

Nonetheless, Europe still has an outsized capacity of solar coming online. By 2030 the continent will see 152GW added to existing capacity of 170GW – compared with 68GW being added to 16GW of existing solar power in Africa and the Middle East.

Sunny Spain leads the way for new solar in Europe, with a massive 56GW in the pipeline, but even cooler and cloudier countries like the UK (10GW), Poland (4GW), Ireland (3GW) and Hungary (3GW) have large capacities in the pipeline.

New solar plants can be seen scattered across the African continent, from the Savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, to the heavily populated nations of West Africa, to the Sahara Desert.

The data shows that Zimbabwe has the most solar power on the way with 4GW, followed by 3GW in South Africa and 3GW in Ethiopia.

Saudi Arabia and UAE, which have previously detailed big plans to create and export ‘green’ hydrogen made from solar power, have the biggest solar pipeline in the Middle East, with 11GW and 8GW under way respectively.

Other oil nations now investing heavily in solar include Algeria (4GW), Iraq (4GW) and Iran (2GW). The data shows governments turning to renewables, with oil and gas no longer reliable in the long term.

Hydropower

Studies show some hydropower plants can have emissions comparable to fossil fuel plants, due to the massive amounts of concrete involved 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.

Scandinavian countries like Norway and Sweden have long seen the majority of their electricity generated from hydropower, while governments in Africa have also invested in massive hydropower projects for decades. Famous projects have included Egypt’s 2GW Aswan Dam and the 6GW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam currently under construction.

In Europe, pipeline capacity of 43GW of hydropower is set to be added to 310GW of existing capacity. Turkey (6GW), Russia (5GW) Georgia (4GW) and the UK (4GW) have the most capacity on the way.

In Africa, the Grand Inga Dam project on the Congo River (45GW) – which is expected to cost more than $100bn – is the largest upcoming power plant.

Other countries with major upcoming hydropower capacity include Ethiopia (25GW), Angola (7GW) and Mozambique (7GW). In all, Africa and the Middle East has a massive 130GW of hydropower in the pipeline, to be added to 29GW of existing capacity.

Nuclear

Nuclear power is also carbon-free but it does produce large quantities of radioactive waste that have to be stored securely for hundreds of thousands of years. This is a major challenge: in the UK, official estimates put the cost of cleaning up 17 of the country’s oldest nuclear power plants at £124bn over the next 120 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.

Europe currently has 140GW of nuclear capacity, the lion’s share of which is in France (61GW) and Russia (28GW). Russia (49GW), the UK (20GW), Turkey (15GW) and Poland (11GW) have the most capacity on the way.

Africa and the Middle East’s entire nuclear power supply is currently based in South Africa, where two ageing 930MW nuclear reactors built in 1984 provide around 5% of the country’s power.

However, this is set to change: Egypt (8GW), Iran (5GW), Nigeria (5GW) and UAE (4GW) all have significant plans for new capacity, as do Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tunisia, Sudan and Ghana.

Other renewables

Geothermal generates constant electricity using heat from the Earth’s core – but is usually only available on tectonic plate boundaries.

Across EMEA, there is currently 4GW of geothermal capacity in existence, around a quarter of which is in Turkey. This is set to triple in size, with 8GW on the way. The East African Rift Valley nations of Kenya (5GW) and Ethiopia (1GW) make up the most of this upcoming capacity, with these countries building from a baseline of less than 1GW each.

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.

Such has been the slow progress on ocean power, that the two largest ocean plants under development – the humongous 87GW Penzhin Tidal Power Plant in the Sea of Okhotsk off eastern Russia, and the 3GW Cardiff Bay Tidal Lagoon – have languished at the “announced” stage of development for several of years, unable to secure funding.

Biomass is said to be carbon-neutral, due to the feedstock absorbing CO2 as it grows, but 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.

Across EMEA, countries have 51GW of biomass capacity, with 8GW in the pipeline.

Many people in Africa continue to use biomass as a traditional cooking and heating fuel, with a 2019 study from the UN Environment Programme predicting that 65% of people in sub-Saharan Africa will still do so by 2050.

The UK is the regional leader for biomass, with 7GW of capacity in existence and 3GW in the pipeline. The single biggest source of CO2 emissions in the UK comes from Drax Power Station, which provides 7% of the country’s power by burning wood pellets imported from the US.

Fossil fuels

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, as remains the case all across the world, this is not what is happening in EMEA.

In Europe, 118GW of new fossil fuel capacity is set to be added to 697GW of current capacity. In Africa and the Middle East, 204GW will be added to 504GW of current capacity.

Like in the Americas, the big fossil fuels story in EMEA is the amount of natural gas coming online. In Europe, some 86GW is in the pipeline, to be added to 430GW that exists already.

The UK (33GW), Germany (17GW) and Russia (10GW) have the most on the way. It seems likely gas will not be going anywhere anytime soon, with the EU looking set to controversially include gas in its sustainable finance taxonomy.

Some 154GW of gas is being added to 339GW of existing capacity in Africa and the Middle East.

Iran (22GW), Nigeria (19GW) and Kuwait (17GW) lead the way for new gas additions. Poorer African nations also have significant capacity in the works, including Sudan (3GW), Ghana (3GW) and Tanzania (2GW).

As the dirtiest of the three fossil fuels, coal has long been touted as being on its way out. However, the fuel is stubbornly holding on in EMEA.

In Europe, some 30GW of capacity is set to be added to 234GW of existing capacity, with the vast majority of this (23GW) in Turkey.

In Africa and the Middle East, 41GW of coal is set to be added to 57GW of existing capacity. Zimbabwe (6GW), Botswana (4GW) and Nigeria (4GW) have the most capacity on the way in Africa.

Outside the Middle East, oil is not a major source of power in EMEA, following a global trend that has seen oil displaced by coal and later natural gas since the oil price increases of the 1970s. EMEA has 141GW of oil-fired power capacity, 49GW of which is in Saudi Arabia, 9GW in Kuwait and 9GW in Iraq.

Some 10GW of oil power is currently in the pipeline, with Iraq (2GW) contributing the most.

The big story in the power transition in Europe, the Middle East and Africa is inequality. Wealthy Europe has an overall capacity pipeline of 829GW, 712GW of which is clean. Despite having nearly twice the population of Europe, the Middle East and Africa has 472GW in the pipeline, of which 270GW is clean.

The inequality, therefore, is two-fold: countries in the Global South are not receiving the high levels of new energy development that will be needed to help them to develop – and the investment they are receiving is far more skewed towards fossil fuels than in the rich countries of Europe.

If the world is to reach net zero by mid-century, shows the IEA’s Net Zero Pathway, new fossil fuel power stations built will likely have to be shut down before they reach the end of their typical 40-year lifespan. Rich countries in Europe will likely be able to afford this – but in Africa, indebted governments may struggle to refinance and replace plants that can no longer be sustained.

Renewables will one day be the foundation of the world’s energy system, and the data suggests that this transition is indeed taking place in Europe (notwithstanding significant amounts of gas coming online).

In much of Africa and the Middle East, though, the challenge is more complex: to develop economically and bring millions of people out of poverty, but do so in a way that has never been done before, using renewables and not fossil fuels.

The power plants data for EMEA shows that this challenge is not yet being met. The data shows why a greater mobilisation of climate finance – including the long-promised annual payment of $100bn per year from rich countries – will be crucial to achieve net-zero global emissions.

You can learn more about GlobalData’s underlying power plant data here.

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