The staggering growth in renewable energy has the potential to fundamentally change the way we generate and use power. Previously dismissed as marginal technologies, renewables have become “increasingly mainstream and competitive with conventional energy sources.” This is the conclusion of a new report on the global status of renewable energies by the REN21 Network.
The new report finds that investment in renewable power (not including large hydropower projects) and fuels reached $244 billion last year. If only net investments (in projects which add rather than replace generating capacity) are considered, global investment in renewables surpassed investment in fossil fuels for the third year in a row.
Renewable energy technologies have also overtaken large hydropower projects as a source of new power generating capacity. In 2012, a whopping 45 gigawatts (GW) of new wind power plants came online. Solar power added 30 GW – on par with large hydropower – and has now surpassed the milestone of 100 GW.
The REN21 report finds that renewable energies can make up a much higher share of electricity systems than was previously thought possible. In 2011, over 40% of Denmark’s electricity came from renewables, primarily wind and biomass. The country recently announced plans to source 100% of its energy needs from renewables by 2050.
The report finds that “renewables can reduce electricity prices considerably and thus alleviate energy costs for consumers.” According to financial experts, these technologies are “coming to be seen as among the lowest-risk investments.” Finally, renewable energy is creating a lot of jobs. In 2012, the sector directly or indirectly employed an estimated 5.7 million people around the world.
Renewable energy plants are not only cleaner than large dams and thermal power plants; they are also more effective in improving energy access for the rural poor. While investment in industrialized countries actually dropped in 2012, investment in developing countries expanded rapidly. Already, the REN21 network finds, renewables “have proven to be both reliable and affordable means for achieving access to modern energy services. And they are only growing more so as technological advances and rapidly falling prices (particularly for solar PV and wind power) enable renewables to spread to new markets.”
China, South Africa, Morocco, Mexico, Chile and Kenya brought about particularly sharp increases in renewable energy capacity. In Morocco, over 3,600 villages were electrified using off-grid systems and mini-grids based on renewables. The Economic Community of West African States plans to use mini-grids to provide electricity to 104 million people by 2030, according to its 2012 renewable energy policy. Over 170 million people lack energy access in the region.
While renewable energy capacity is expanding rapidly, the growth rate was even higher in 2011 than 2012. The REN21 Network reports that investment slumped by about 35 percent in Europe and the United States due to uncertainty about the future of support policies. Stable and reliable measures such as feed-in tariffs for renewable energy and renewable portfolio standards are required to ensure the continued rapid expansion of environmentally and socially beneficial renewable energy technologies.
Given the technological and commercial breakthrough of renewable energy not least in developing countries, it is remarkable that the World Bank continues to neglect these technologies, and has recently announced a return to mega-dams for hydropower generation in Africa and other parts of the world. The advances of renewable technologies are rendering destructive large dams and fossil fuel plants obsolete. The choice between renewables and these dinosaur technologies that are costly to build and socially and environmentally destructive is clear. The last hurdle to revolutionizing our energy systems is our political will.
“We stand on the cusp of renewables becoming a central part of the world’s energy mix. As technical constraints are overcome, most of the alleged limitations to achieving higher shares of renewables are due to a lack of political will to enact the necessary policies and measures. It is time to address this remaining hurdle,” ends the report.
REN21, the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, is a policy network that shares knowledge and facilitates the growth of renewable energies. Its participants and members include governments, international associations, NGOs, the private sector, scientific institutes and other interested parties. The network’s latest Global Status Report was produced with contributions from 500 experts, including from International Rivers.