Renewables revolution surges both at home and abroad

The low-carbon and renewables revolution is in full swing, both domestically and on a global scale, as figures show the UK sector made a turnover of £43bn in 2015, and a UN-backed report highlights a record amount of world renewable energy capacity installed last year at plummeting costs.

New evidence from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reveal that the industry accounted for 1.3% of total UK non-financial turnover in 2015. More than half of the UK’s turnover from onshore wind activities was generated in Scotland (£1.5bn), according to the ONS, while the solar, offshore and onshore wind sectors combined accounted for 63.5% of all of the industry’s acquisitions.

An estimated 234,000 full-time employees were working directly in the industry in 2015 – a figure welcomed by the green community.

WWF energy specialist Rebecca Williams commented: “With almost a quarter of a million people working in the low carbon energy sector, and many thousands employed indirectly, this industry really is a boon to the UK economy.

“It is pumping billions into our economy, growing jobs and boosting innovation, and that is before we take into account the beneficial impacts it is having on our environment. With over 25% of our electricity being produced from renewable sources, the low-carbon sector has now truly come of age, but to meet our climate obligations we must go further.”

Global records

The UK’s drive towards a low-carbon economy is reflected on the international stage, as new research shows that record levels of renewable energy capacity were installed last year. A report published by UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) shows that an added 138.5GW of capacity was aided by falling costs, with global investment – almost £200bn – falling 23% lower than the year before.

While much of the drop in financing was due to reduced technology costs, the report documented a slowdown in China, Japan and some emerging markets, for a variety of reasons.  Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, South Africa and Morocco all saw falls of 60% or more, due to slower than expected growth in electricity demand, and delays to auctions and financings. Meanwhile, China saw investment drop 32% to £63bn, breaking an 11-year rising trend.

“Ever-cheaper clean tech provides a real opportunity for investors to get more for less,” said UNEP executive director Erik Solheim. “This is exactly the kind of situation, where the needs of profit and people meet, that will drive the shift to a better world for all.” 

The report notes that investment in renewables did not drop across the board. Europe enjoyed a 3% increase to £48bn, led primarily by the UK and Germany. Offshore wind (£21bn) dominated Europe’s investment, up 53% thanks to arrays such as the 1.2GW Hornsea project in the North Sea, estimated to cost £4.6bn. China also invested £3.3bn in offshore wind, its highest figure to date. 

Research shows that new investment in solar totalled £91bn, down 34% from the record high in 2015. Solar capacity additions, however, rose to an all-time high of 75GW. Wind made up £90bn of investment globally, down 9%, while wind capacity additions fell to 54GW from the previous year’s high of 63GW.

“The question always used to be ‘will renewables ever be grid competitive?’,” said BNEF chairman of the advisory board Michael Liebreich. “Well, after the dramatic cost reductions of the past few years, unsubsidised wind and solar can provide the lowest cost new electrical power in an increasing number of countries, even in the developing world – sometimes by a factor of two.

“It’s a whole new world: even though investment is down, annual installations are still up; instead of having to subsidise renewables, now authorities may have to subsidise natural gas plants to help them provide grid reliability.”

The report comes a week after figures from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) confirmed that 2016 was the strongest year yet for renewable energy. Hidden within the report are some eye-catching statistics edie has analysed to bring 10 insights that you probably didn’t know about global renewable energy capacity.

George Ogleby

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