From the scorching deserts of the Atacama to transatlantic gusts blowing across the Gulf of Mexico, the Americas are rich in renewable energy potential. However, the Albertan tar sands, the shale gas revolution, and emerging Latin American petrostates are fuelling a dirty energy system scientists say we can no longer afford to sustain.
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. 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.
Power plants do not tell us everything about the transition, but they 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 will increase from 1% to 53%; and heat pumps will meet 55% of heat demand, up from 7% today.
Below, Energy Monitor takes you through power plant plans in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean. 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.
On the map, one hexagon represents the aggregated energy capacity of power plants located within a ~200km radius.
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Solar and wind
Unless a country happens to be exceptionally mountainous or geologically active, it is likely solar and wind power will be the driving force on the journey to net zero. The IEA estimates that by 2030, global wind and solar capacity additions must hit 390GW and 630GW, respectively, five times higher than the average over the past three years, to get the world on track to net zero.
The good news is that both power sources are only getting cheaper. In less than a decade, the cost of large-scale solar has fallen more than 85%, while that of onshore wind has fallen 56% and offshore wind 48%, says the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Both technologies have “low costs, widespread availability and policy support in over 130 countries”, said the IEA in its most recent World Energy Outlook (WEO). It expects their capacity to triple over the next decade under current policies.
A number of massive wind power projects are coming online between now and 2030, shows GlobalData’s dataset. The Americas had 169GW of capacity in 2020, which is around two-thirds of the size of the 281GW under development.
In the US, there is significant capacity coming in Texas and in the Midwest, as well as off the north-east coast, which suggests President Biden’s recently announced plans for offshore wind farms on the West and East Coasts and Gulf of Mexico are on the way to becoming a reality. In all, the US is set to see 114GW of capacity added to its current capacity of 122GW.
In Latin America, Brazil’s upcoming capacity of 106GW is a more than six-fold increase over its current installed capacity, while Mexico (11GW), Chile (14GW) and Colombia (15GW) also have significant capacity coming.
The 26GW Asa Branca wind energy development off the north coast of Brazil – which has not yet been permitted or financed, and would involve 32 separate 720MW wind farms – is the largest project under development in the region.
Solar power plants tend to be smaller and more widely spread than wind facilities, with a total of 4,115 upcoming plants, compared with 1,624 upcoming wind plants. Some 124GW of solar capacity exists in the Americas, with 249GW in the pipeline.
Small-scale solar plants below 50MW are scattered across the US, with a huge number set to be developed along the East Coast, despite the region having less solar potential than southern states. Fewer, but larger, plants are coming online in the West.
In Latin America, Mexico (14GW), Brazil (24GW), Colombia (22GW) and the Dominican Republic (3GW)– by far the largest pipeline in the Caribbean – have significant capacity on the way.
Chile, which has amongst the highest solar potential of any country in the world, has 30GW on the way.
Poorer, less politically stable countries like Bolivia, Venezuela and most of the Caribbean are notable for their comparative lack of upcoming capacity, illustrating how many developing countries have struggled to attract renewables investment. Bolivia has just 8.3MW of solar and wind power capacity on the way.
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.
In North America, both the US and Canada (where hydropower already provides 60% of electricity) have significant capacity coming online. In the US, current capacity of 102GW is set to increase by a quarter, with 26GW coming online by 2031.
In South America, southern Brazil has many small-scale plants on the way (with a combined capacity of 11GW), while Peru (15GW), Colombia (14GW) and Ecuador (7GW) also have significant plans.
The proposed Manseriche mega-dam in Peru is set to be constructed over a gorge on the free-flowing Marañón River, which is the main source of the Amazon River. It would inundate 5,470km2, flooding towns and displacing thousands.
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. 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.
Nevertheless, many 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.
The majority of new nuclear projects proposed or under construction in the Americas are in the US as the country has both the financial muscle and technology needed for new facilities. Current plans would see 11GW added to the 97GW in existence by 2030. Discussions are ongoing as to whether nuclear will play a greater role in the future.
Geothermal generates constant electricity using heat from the Earth’s core – but is usually only available on tectonic plate boundaries.
The US is the world leader for geothermal power, already hosting around 20% of global installed capacity.
The data shows the majority of upcoming geothermal capacity in the Americas is also set to be in the US, with 2GW planned for the fault line between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates.
It has been suggested time and again that the volcanoes of the Caribbean could provide that region with ample geothermal energy – but with just 220MW in the pipeline, this is not yet coming to pass.
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.
There is 40MW and 50MW of ocean power coming up in the US and Canada, respectively, largely based off the coast of Nova Scotia and Maine in the north-east of North America. Maine has some of the largest tides in the world, with water rising and falling up to 11ft on the shoreline twice every day.
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.
Nevertheless, new biomass capacity is set to come online across Latin America and the Caribbean, with Cuba (1GW) and Brazil (2GW) expecting the most. Numerous studies have shown biomass production in Brazil is a major driver of deforestation.
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. Unfortunately, this is far from what is happening: across the Americas, 125GW of fossil fuel power is in the pipeline– to be added to the 1,037GW that already exists.
The data shows that many countries in Latin America are also pursuing gas as a “ transition fuel ” on their journeys to net zero. The major economies of Brazil (20GW), Mexico (6GW), Argentina (5GW) and Colombia (5GW) all have significant capacity due to come online in the next decade.
Given the headwinds facing fossil fuels as the energy transition accelerates, it is likely many of these gas plants will ultimately not come to fruition, or at least will not be kept running for as long as their investors expect them to.
Uncertainty is already disrupting the industry. In 2020, Dominion Energy sold its natural gas transmission and storage business in the US to Berkshire Hathaway for $9.7bn, while in 2019, Dominion and Duke cancelled their ambitious Atlantic Coast Pipeline, citing “an unacceptable layer of uncertainty”.
Beyond gas, a bright spot lies in how little coal power is under development in the Americas compared with what is happening in Asia-Pacific and Africa.
Only seven coal plants are in the pipeline, with a combined capacity of 2.5GW. More than half of this is from two plants in Colombia– but it is likely, given the rising pressure to bring an end to coal, that much of this will not come online. The rate of plant retirements is also likely to far exceed any new capacity coming online.
Oil is not a major source of power in the Americas, with 90GW currently online and 3GW in the pipeline. It follows a global trend that has seen oil displaced by coal and later natural gas, ever since oil price increases in the 1970s.
One clear trend is the proliferation of new diesel power plants in the Brazilian Amazon, with Brazil as a whole set to see 1GW come online by 2030.
Communities in the Amazon remain cut off from the outside world, a situation well-suited for off-grid solar. Diesel generators, meanwhile, rely on expensive and polluting fuel that has to be transported many thousands of miles up rivers.
The story of the energy transition in the Americas can be summed up by a single sentence in the IEA’s most recent energy outlook: “Every data point showing the speed of change in energy can be countered by another showing the stubbornness of the status quo.”
Renewables will one day be the foundation of the world’s energy system, and the data shows this shift is taking place. However, while 249GW of solar and 281GW of wind plans lead the way for new capacity, in third position comes 120GW of natural gas. What is more, report after report has warned that the current renewable roll-out rate remains well below what is needed to reach net zero within three decades.
Another way of looking at the gap between what is needed and what is taking place is through financing. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that $1.6–3.8trn is required annually to avoid warming exceeding 1.5°C, but just $632bn, or slightly over a third of the lower limit, was spent in 2019–20, estimates non-profit research outlet the Climate Policy Initiative.
The story of the energy transition in the Americas is also one of inequality. Some $47.9bn was spent on renewables in the US in 2020, compared with $353m spent in Colombia and just $2m in Venezuela, according to GlobalData. The US has by far the largest electricity and industrial sectors of these three countries, but it is clear that poorer nations are not yet directing the necessary capital towards clean energy in order to reach net zero by 2050. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti, has no plans for new power capacity other than 32MW of new hydropower.
To try and meet the financing challenge, wealthy nations agreed in 2009 to provide $100bn a year by 2020. This target has not yet been met – with a study by NGO Oxfam estimating it will only be met by 2025. The pressure is on for rich countries to change tack at COP26.