10 things you probably didn't know about a record-breaking year for renewables

As a new report reveals that 2017 was a record year for renewable power installations, edie rounds up some of the headline trends that are shaping the transition to renewable energy.

98GW of solar capacity was installed worldwide last year - more than the net additions of fossil fuels and nuclear power combined

98GW of solar capacity was installed worldwide last year - more than the net additions of fossil fuels and nuclear power combined

The latest REN21 Renewables Global Status report was published on Sunday (June 3) and claims that renewable projects accounted for 70% of all new power additions last year, representing 178GW of increased capacity worldwide.

Another encouraging finding was that investment in new renewable power capacity last year was more than double that of new fossil fuel and nuclear power capacity combined – a trend the report attributes to falling renewables prices.

But, the report warned that while the transition to renewables is well under way in the power sector, the heating, cooling and transport sectors - which together account for 80% of final energy use - continued to lag. It claims that globally, only 10% of final energy use in the heating and cooling sector is met with modern renewables, while the figure stands at just 3% for transport.

“This year’s report reveals two realities: one in which a revolution in the power sector is driving rapid change towards a renewable energy future, and another in which the overall transition is not advancing with the speed needed,” REN21’s chair Arthouros Zervos said. “While momentum in the power sector is positive, it will not on its own deliver the emissions reductions demanded by the Paris climate agreement or the aspirations of SDG7.”

Here, edie dives deep into the data to bring you ten key statistics of the global energy transformation.

1) Developing countries lead the investment charge

New investment in renewable power grew from $274bn in 2016 to $279.8bn in 2017, with 75% of this figure accounted for by China, Europe and the US. But when investment was measured per unit of GDP, the Marshall Islands, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands and Guinea-Bissau are among a string of developing countries investing as much as or more in renewables than developed and emerging economies.

Developing and emerging economies have been leading investment in renewables since 2015, when they overtook developed nations. In 2017 and led by China, they accounted for a record 63% of global investment, or $177bn. Meanwhile investment from developed nations fell 19% year-on-year to $103bn.

2) UK investment fell dramatically

The UK - which was Europe’s largest national investor in renewable energy in 2016 – saw total investment fall 65% year-on-year to just $7.6bn.

The report attributes the dramatic decline to the ongoing shift towards subsidy-free renewables, compounded by “a substantial gap in time between auctions for offshore wind power projects”. Similarly, a separate report published in May cites the same cause for a 20% year-on-year fall in the UK’s independent renewable project investments.

3) An equivalent of more than 40,000 solar panels was installed every hour

Solar accounted for nearly 55% of newly-installed renewable power capacity in 2017, with wind and hydropower accounting for 29% and 11% of global capacity additions respectively.

About 98GW (in direct current) of solar PV capacity was installed both on and off the grid worldwide in 2017 -  more than the net additions of fossil fuels and nuclear power combined. This figure was up 29% from the record additions in 2016, making for a cumulative total of some 402GW at the end of 2017. Indeed, the report notes that the equivalent of more than 40,000 solar panels was installed each hour of the year.

REN21 attributes the solar market expansion to the increasing cost-competitiveness of solar technologies combined with growing demand for electricity in developing countries. Government policy and a rising awareness of solar’s potential to alleviate pollution and provide energy access were also cited as key driving factors.

4) The renewables transition isn’t lowering emissions

Despite a global boom in capacity additions and a slight overall increase in investment, energy-related CO2 emissions rose 1.4% in 2017, after three years of holding steady. 

The increase in carbon emissions was primarily the result of robust global economic growth, the report claims, citing a 3.7% overall growth in GDP which resulted in an estimated 2.1% increase in energy demand – more than twice the average increase over the previous five years. Lower fossil fuel prices and weaker energy efficiency efforts are also noted as drivers.

5) Just three nations set new renewables policies

Perhaps unsurprisingly, only three national governments were found to set new targets for renewable energy at either national, state or provincial level in 2017.

The report highlights Switzerland as a policy leader thanks to its new 2050 Energy Strategy, which was set last May after 58% of voters voted to approve a nationwide increase in renewable energy use and a scaling back of the country’s nuclear sector - but notes that sub-national governments and even corporates were found to be acting faster than national governments. The other two countries to set targets were Denmark and Vietnam.

The lag was found to be underpinned by slow uptake of government policy; national targets for renewable energy in heating and cooling exist in only 48 countries around the world, and targets for transport in 42, whereas 146 countries have targets for renewable energy in the power sector.

6) Solar primed for heat revolution

An estimated 35 GWth of new solar thermal capacity was commissioned in 2017, increasing total global capacity 4% to around 472 GWth. China again led for new installations, followed by Turkey, India, Brazil and the US.

While gross additions for the year were down 3% – from 36.2 GWth in 2016 – the report touts solar as the most viable solution for speeding up the slow transition to renewable heat. It claims that additions fell slightly due to increasing competition with other renewable energy technologies in the residential sector and to low fossil fuel prices, which negatively affected solar thermal use in the commercial sector.

Meanwhile, concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) emerged as a viable competitor to fossil fuel thermal power plants, with capacity reaching 4.9 GW in 2017. Although global capacity increased by only  2% thanks to a new 100MW installation in South Africa, the CSP industry was active, with a pipeline of more than 2GW of projects under construction around the world.

 7) Scotland set to join the ocean energy heavyweights

Approximately 529MW of operating ocean energy capacity at the end of 2017 was located at tidal barrage facilities in France and the Republic of Korea – accounting for more than 90% of the market.

However, the report notes that the ocean energy industry’s continued optimism and development efforts are bringing ocean power closer to commercialisation.

The year ended with net capacity additions of at least 4MW, for a year-end total of 17MW of tidal stream and 8MW of wave energy capacity. The majority of the net capacity addition was due to Scotland’s efforts to launch new tidal stream and wave energy projects.

8) UK cements leadership role in offshore sector

Total offshore wind capacity increased by an unprecedented 30% in the sector last year, with nine countries connecting a combined total of 4.3GW of capacity to bring the total global capacity to 18.8GW.

The top country for offshore additions was the United Kingdom, with leadership set to continue thanks to the world’s first commercial floating project being commissioned in Scotland. Germany, China and Belgium were also key contributors.

9) Hydropower is treading water

Global additions to hydropower capacity in 2017 were an estimated 19GW – the smallest annual increment seen over the last five years.

With total global capacity standing at approximately 1,114GW, the leading countries for cumulative capacity remain the same – namely China, Brazil, the US, Canada, the Russian Federation, India and Norway. These nations represented about 63% of installed capacity at the end of 2017.

10) Off-grid solar and clean cooking are facing a cliff edge

Investment in both off-grid solar companies and clean cook stove firms fell substantially in 2017, with a 10% year-on-year decrease for the former.

Nonetheless, the report claims that an “increasing number” of private mini-grid developers are actively testing a range of business models and helping to move the mini-grids sector to maturity. In India alone, an estimated 206 mini-grid systems were installed during 2016-2017, the report notes.

Sarah George


Tags

offshore wind | renewables | solar | transport

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