Photograph by David McNew—Getty Images
By Katie Fehrenbacher
June 23, 2015

Over the next 25 years the world’s energy will slowly become cleaner and more distributed and more people will have access to electricity than ever before. But the transition from dirty to clean power won’t come fast enough, and carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels will likely lead to dangerous global temperature rises.

Those are the both uplifting, and utterly depressing, findings of a new report released Tuesday by the research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The report found that by 2040, 56% of the world’s power will come from clean energy sources, compared to the current reality of two thirds coming from fossil fuels. Specifically for electricity, clean energy will provide 46% of the world electricity by 2040 with the bulk coming from wind turbines and solar panels.

Clean energy will represent 60% of the new power generating infrastructure built out over the next 25 years and will command two thirds of the total investment dollars in new power generating capacity, the report said. Solar in particular will account for 35% of new power generation infrastructure built out over the next 25 years, and $3.7 trillion will be spent on both small and large scale solar projects globally.

While most of the solar construction in regions like the U.S. has been large centralized projects that sell power to utilities, the future of solar panel projects is smaller and more distributed. The report estimates that $2.2 trillion of the $3.7 trillion that will be spent on solar panels will go to local panel systems for home owners and small business operators.

SolarCity workers install solar electrical panels on the roof of a home in Palo Alto, Calif. in 2011.
Photograph by Tony Avelar — Christian Science Monitor Christian Science Monitor—Getty Images

That transition should get energy geeks excited. It means more people than ever before will be taking an active role in owning and managing their own energy generation and use. People who own solar panels are also more likely to own an electric car, as well as other energy efficient devices like LED lighting and smart thermostats.

Clean energy will continue to drop in price, the report said, and the industry is still maturing. Wind power will be the cheapest form of new power generation worldwide by 2026, and utility-scale solar panel projects will claim that title by 2030.

But a handful of countries will add the same amount of utility-scale solar as they will coal plants. And developing countries with large coal supplies will add another 1,291 gigawatts of coal power by 2040. One gigawatt is like a large coal plant.

These developing countries are quickly adding all forms of power generation as their economies rapidly grow and industrialize. More than half of the world’s new power generation infrastructure — both fossil fuel-based and clean power — will be built out in Asia over the next 25 years. China by itself will attract $3.3 trillion worth of investments for new power generation.

Photograph by Luke Sharrett — Bloomberg via Getty Images

While much of the discussion about an energy transition in the U.S. has focused on using natural gas as a low cost cleaner fossil fuel option, the report says that the rest of the world will not look like the U.S. Globally 1,359 gigawatts of natural gas will be added, with 86% of this in developing countries.

Another bit of good news is that energy efficiency technologies — like efficient lighting, and smarter heating and cooling systems — will lead to lower energy use in developed countries. Power demand in developed countries will be lower in 2040 than it was in 2014.

However despite these positive statistics, the report predicts that the transition won’t be enough to keep the climate from warming over two degrees on average, which is a generally agreed upon target that could avoid many of the costs associated with major warming of the planet. In the end, it’ll be the additional coal power added by developing countries that’ll nudge us up into the really dangerous temperature zone.

If that’s not enough to make you crawl back into bed this morning, you should go read a dire warning report that was issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week. The report found that if carbon emissions aren’t curbed, the U.S. could face $180 billion in economic losses because of drought and water shortages, 12,000 preventable deaths from extreme heat and cold, and between six million and 7.9 million acres of forest that destroyed by wildfires.

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