BY ANDREW FREEDMAN
In the latest indication that renewable energy sources like solar and wind power are ascendant worldwide, a new report finds that, in 2015, a record-breaking $286 billion was invested in renewable energy capacity worldwide.
This translated into 134 gigawatts of renewable power added worldwide last year, compared to just 87 gigawatts two years ago.
This was more than double the $130 billion that went toward coal and natural gas, according to the data produced by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the Frankfurt School and the U.N. Environment Program.
The annual report, released Thursday, shows another important milestone was crossed last year: renewable energy capacity investments were focused more on the developing world, particularly China, than in industrialized nations.
In China, for example, renewable energy investment increased by 17 percent to $103 billion, the report found, which constitutes 36 percent of the world total.
By contrast, industrialized nations’ investments in renewables during 2015 was down by 8 percent.
Renewable energy investment in India was up by 22 percent to $10.2 billion.
Despite the surge in renewables, fossil fuel sources such as coal and natural gas are still the top source of electricity around the world, and humans are adding carbon dioxide, the main long-lived greenhouse gas, at a rate unseen in at least 66 million years.
Report bolsters view that fossil fuel era is now waning
Last year saw the negotiation of the Paris Climate Accord, which effectively signaled the end of the fossil fuel era, given that emissions of global warming pollutants such as carbon dioxide would have to fall precipitously in coming decades to meet the agreement’s goals.
The report indicates that momentum is already building for a relatively rapid shift to renewable energy sources, which would lower emissions of powerful global warming pollutants such as carbon dioxide and methane.
According to the report, investments in coal and natural gas-fired power amounted to less than half as much energy capacity investment as renewables did during 2015.
The record total of $286 billion invested in renewables worldwide last year brought the 12-year total to $2.3 trillion, according to the report. The total investments in renewables, which includes early stage technology investments and research as well as new capacity, amounted to $286 billion in 2015, which exceeded the previous record set in 2011.
The developing country trends are especially significant because countries like China and India represent the future of greenhouse gas emissions, as they expand electricity access. The energy decisions these countries make will have a huge influence on whether the world meets or blows past its global warming target of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels by the year 2100.
One of the major factors driving the surge in renewables, in addition to new government policies, is the free-fall in the cost of solar photovoltaics. Last year was the first time new installed renewables, excluding large hydroelectric plants, were higher than the energy capacity added by all conventional energy technologies combined.
In fact, the report indicates that had there not been such a boost in solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy, global carbon dioxide emissions would have been 1.4 gigatons higher in 2015.
Michael Liebreich, chairman of BNEF’s advisory board, said the report shows that renewable energy capacity grew despite record low prices of oil, gas and coal. In addition, renewable energy sources have “broadened out to a wider and wider array of developing countries,” he said in a statement, “helped by sharply reduced costs and by the benefits of local power production over reliance on imported commodities.”
Solar and wind again topped the list
The report shows that the renewable energy market remains dominated by solar and wind power, which added 118 gigawatts of generating capacity in 2015, far exceeding the previous record of 94 gigawatts in 2014.
Wind power slightly edged out solar power, whereas smaller amounts of biomass, waste-to-power, geothermal, solar thermal and other renewable energy systems were added during the year.
Another new trend evident in 2015 was the coming of age of energy storage technologies, which are considered to be crucial if wind and solar are to become a core part of the electricity grid.
Because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, storage systems are necessary to help balance the energy flowing into the grid.
The report found that in 2015, 250 megawatts of utility-scale electricity storage capacity was installed worldwide, an increase of nearly 100 megawatts from 2014.
We’re not there yet
While the trends in renewable energy investment are encouraging to those who are campaigning to curb human-caused global warming, the fact is that renewable energy sources are still a small minority of the world’s total installed power capacity.
The report puts this figure at one-sixth of installed power capacity, or about 10 percent of electric generating capacity.
“Coal-fired power stations and other conventional power plants have long lifetimes. Without further policy interventions, climate-altering emissions of carbon dioxide will increase for at least another decade.”
In addition, the precipitous drop in coal, oil and natural gas prices make those energy sources more attractive economically, thereby making it difficult for renewables to compete in some countries. However, if the goals of the Paris Summit are to be met, a rapid transition away from such fossil fuels is necessary.
“In spite of these positive findings, to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees, we must immediately shift away from fossil fuels,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement accompanying the report.
“Sustainable, renewable energy is growing, but not quickly enough to meet expected energy demand,” Ban said.
“For power sector development to be consistent with the goal of zero net greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the century, it will be necessary to reduce or leave idle fossil-fuel power plant capacity, unless carbon capture technologies become widely available and are rapidly and fully utilized.”