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The global outlook for renewable power in one graph

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Energy produced from hydro, wind, solar, and other renewables sources is expected to exceed that from natural gas and double that from nuclear sources by 2016 – becoming the second most important energy source behind coal.

Speaking at the 10th Annual Renewable Energy Finance Forum in New York City last month, International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said the global outlook for renewables is “robust”, with total renewable generation capacity expected to grow to nearly one-quarter of the global electricity generation capacity by 2018.

Ms. van der Hoeven points to two main trends driving the renewables outlook: renewable deployment is expanding across the globe and renewables are becoming cost competitive versus fossil fuels in many circumstances.

Led by investment and deployment in China, non-OECD countries are expected to account for two-thirds of the global increase in renewable power generation between now and 2018. This rapid deployment is “mainly driven by fast‐rising electricity demand, energy diversification needs, and local pollution concerns, while contributing to climate change mitigation”, according to Ms. van der Hoeven.

China is expected to account for 40 percent of the global growth in renewable power capacity between 2012 and 2018. Although a large portion of China’s renewable portfolio is hydro and onshore wind, the country could have the largest deployment of solar PV systems if financial incentives and a stronger policy push are made.

In addition to China, there is significant renewable deployment in Brazil, India, South Africa, and the Middle East. The IEA expects this growth to more than compensate for slower growth in Europe and the United States.

Renewables are also becoming cost competitive with fossil fuels. The levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) for onshore wind is competitive or close to competitive versus new coal or gas-fired plants in Australia, where wind is competitive versus the generation costs of new coal- and gas-fired plants with carbon pricing, and the best wind sites can compete without carbon pricing. In Turkey and New Zealand, onshore wind has been competing well in the wholesale electricity market for several years.

Despite the healthy growth prospects, renewable energy deployment is becoming more complex and needs policy certainty to be successful.

“To get investment at favourable rates, risks must be reduced and shared. Even for less deployed technologies such as concentrated solar power and offshore wind, technology risk is no longer seen as the main barrier to investment”, Ms. van der Hoeven explained. “The main challenge, the public enemy #1 for investors and the most important barrier to renewable energy deployment is policy uncertainty.”

Countries such as Spain, Czech Republic, and Bulgaria have adopted retroactive policy changes that shake investor confidence. In the United States, uncertainty over Production Tax Credits at the end of 2012 provided little confidence for the renewable industry and investors.

Reducing incentives for renewable projects is a legitimate policy action as long as the reductions “reflect cost reductions of technologies to maximize benefits to customers and tax-payers.”

The IEA Medium-term Renewable Energy Market Report Executive Summary can be found here.

Related reading: U.S. energy transitions in one graph

Graph: IEA

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sisko 9:50 am 07/11/2013

    Can the same graph be shown for fossil fuel electricity production by region? Isn’t that also rising globally?

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  2. 2. sault 11:16 am 07/11/2013

    Renewable energy is becoming PRICE competitive with fossil fuels. If you want to delve into COST competitiveness, then you need to factor in all the health problems, property damage and decreased economic output that pollution and climate change that fossil fuels cause.

    And the policy uncertainty holding back renewable energy development, at least in the USA, is mostly due to the large fossil fuel corporations distorting our political process with massive campaign spending and an anti-scientific PR campaign to confuse people on climate and pollution issues. That the fossil fuel companies are able to spend money to cut down the competition and delay necessary policy that may hurt the bottom line is a positive feedback loop for their financial situation. In addition, political spending has some of the highest returns that these firms can get anywhere. We allow them to bend policy more and more in their favor instead of in the public interest at our own peril.

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  3. 3. Owl905 2:23 pm 07/11/2013

    As usual, instead of finding it, Sisko wants someone else to do the homework. Okay, here ya go:

    page 31

    From now on, instead trying to brag about the lack of look, contribute something solid.

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  4. 4. Sisko 3:00 pm 07/11/2013

    For the next several decades the greatest increases in electrical power generation will come from using fossil fuels. It may be nice if this simple fact was not true, but none the less it is true. That means that global CO2 levels will continue to rise for decades regardless of anything the US does or does not do.

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  5. 5. andynct 3:11 pm 07/11/2013

    2/3 of that still be Hydro power, the most successful low carbon fuel.
    It’s obscene that more investment isn’t being put into new Hydro projects.

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  6. 6. Owl905 3:47 pm 07/11/2013

    “It’s obscene that more investment isn’t being put into new Hydro projects.”

    It is. The greatest hydro projects on the planet are switching from the Yangtze to the source waters of the Nile and the sourcewaters of the Congo. China alone has over 300 projects on the board in 70 countries. It just doesn’t get the headlines (unless there’s a threat to Egypt and Morsi gets caught talking about military intervention) because it’s old tech. I

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  7. 7. Scienceisnotagenda 3:57 pm 07/11/2013

    Hydro is usually more devastating to ecosystems than fossil fuels.

    Lumping renewable energy sources together is meaningless if its meant as some positive progress.

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  8. 8. KiwiBuzz 5:40 pm 07/11/2013

    Wind and solar power are only “competitive” with fossil fuels because of huge subsidies and because they do not pay for the backup capacity needed when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

    Anyway, the world has not warmed for the last 16 years thus making a nonsense of all the computer models that said temperatures would climb steadily. The only rational explanation is that the climate models are worthless.

    More than USD1.5 trillion has been squandered on wind and solar power. Huge amounts have been squandered on subsidies for biofuels that, in the end often produce more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels.

    When will this madness end?

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  9. 9. sault 5:40 pm 07/11/2013

    Sisko, I know you’re trying to be slick about turning people off of clean energy and other ways to reduce carbon emissions, but it’s not working. You have to start reducing carbon emissions somewhere, and if we follow the denialist position of just sitting on our hands, we will have a series of civilization-disrupting climate problems on our hands by the end of the century. To make an analogy, just because you’re overweight and have health problems, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try changing your diet and exercising more often.

    Since the USA has been the biggest roadblock (or more recently, just the Legislative Branch of the U.S. Government…), if we actually take a leadership role on this issue like we’re supposed to and get a global emissions agreement in place, then the knock-on effects to the total carbon emissions of the planet would be a lot larger than the mitigation actions we take at home. And since the market for clean energy and efficiency is immense while demand is growing in a big way, I’d rather the USA develop the technologies and approaches that can satisfy that demand and make money selling these solutions to the developing world instead of some other country.

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  10. 10. sault 5:51 pm 07/11/2013


    Using the ol’ pro-pollution kitchen sink approach, I see. Wind power doesn’t need backup:

    “It has become an article of popular faith that building wind farms also involves constructing fossil-fuelled power stations for back‑up when the weather is calm. As a result, some opponents go on to say, wind turbines do little or nothing to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

    Now the National Grid has studied what actually happens in practice, with explosive, if surprising, results. Between April 2011 and September 2012 – its head of energy strategy, Richard Smith, told the Hay Festival – wind produced some 23,700 gigawatt hours (GWh) of power. Only 22GWh of power from fossil fuels was needed to fill the gaps when the wind didn’t blow. That’s less than a thousandth of the turbines’ output – and, as it happens, less than a tenth of what was needed to back up conventional power stations.

    It proved to be much the same with emissions. Wind saved nearly 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over that 18 months; standby burning of fossil fuels only reduced this by 8,800 tonnes, or 0.081 per cent.

    Not surprisingly, given these figures, no new fossil‑fuel power station has been built to provide back‑up for wind farms, and none is in prospect.”

    Fossil fuels are subsidized to the tune of $1.9 TRILLION annually:

    “On a ―pre-tax‖ basis, subsidies for petroleum products, electricity,natural gas, and coal reached $480 billion in 2011 (0.7 percent of global GDP or
    2 percent of total government revenues). The cost of subsidies is especially acute in oil exporters, which account for about two-thirds of the total. On a ―post-tax‖ basis—which also factors in the negative externalities from energy consumption—subsidies are much higher at $1.9 trillion (2½ percent of global GDP or 8 percent of total government revenues).”

    The vast majority of the $1.5T that you claim have gone to wind and solar power ACTUALLY went to the biofuel boondoggles you complain about in the very next line of your rant. And with dirty energy sources getting subsidies at 10 – 30 times that of clean energy, your view of susbidies is severely warped.

    And your view on global warming is even more out of touch with reality:

    “The difficulties in debunking blatant antireality are legion. You can make up any old nonsense and state it in a few seconds, but it takes much longer to show why it’s wrong and how things really are.

    This is coupled with how sticky bunk can be. Once uttered, it’s out there, bootstrapping its own reality, getting repeated by the usual suspects.

    Case in point: The claim that there’s been no global warming for the past 16 years. This is blatantly untrue, a ridiculous and obviously false statement. But I see it over and again online, in Op Eds, and in comments to climate change posts.

    So let this be clear: There is no scientific controversy over this. Climate change denial is purely, 100 percent made-up political and corporate-sponsored crap. When the loudest voices are fossil-fuel funded think tanks, when they don’t publish in science journals but instead write error-laden op-eds in partisan venues, when they have to manipulate the data to support their point, then what they’re doing isn’t science.”

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  11. 11. ksparth 9:17 pm 07/11/2013

    It is useful to get the growth of renewables in one graph.In spite of all the advantages of solar and wind power lack of effective storage will continue to be an issue.
    Dr K S Parthasarathy

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  12. 12. bucketofsquid 6:04 pm 07/19/2013

    Extensive use of solar and wind energy gave the Germans fits until they developed new tech to deal with excess production destabilizing the grid. California is currently facing the same issue and looking at deploying the same technology and regulations. My source is Transmission & Distribution World magazine, July 2013. The articles are “Can Smart Solar Keep the Sun Shining on PV?” and “Wind Power: Making it Play Nice is no Breeze.”

    Inverters are generally bad for the grid unless they are of the new designs.

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