The renewable energy revolution

REN21 ‒ the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century ‒ has released 'Renewables 2016: Global Status Report', the latest edition of a report produced annually since 2005.1

REN21 comprises a range of governments, non-governmental organisations, research and academic institutions, international organisations and industry. It is an international non-profit association based at the United Nations Environment Programme in Paris. The latest Global Status Report involved over 500 authors, contributors and reviewers.

The report notes that 2015 was an "extraordinary" year for renewable energy: "Renewables are now established around the world as mainstream sources of energy. Rapid growth, particularly in the power sector, is driven by several factors, including the improving cost-competiveness of renewable technologies, dedicated policy initiatives, better access to financing, energy security and environmental concerns, growing demand for energy in developing and emerging economies, and the need for access to modern energy. Consequently, new markets for both centralised and distributed renewable energy are emerging in all regions."

Renewable power generation and capacity

According to the REN21 report, an estimated net 147 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power capacity was added in 2015, up 9.7% from the 134 GW added in 2014. That 147 GW net growth is the largest annual increase in capacity ever.

By the end of 2015, renewables produced an estimated 23.7% of global electricity generation (5633 / 23,741 Terrawatt-hours). The 23.7% figure is up from 22.8% the previous year. Hydropower provided about 16.6% of total global electricity generation in 2015 (70% of renewable generation), followed by wind 3.7%, bio-power 2.0%, solar 1.2%, with geothermal, concentrating solar power and ocean power accounting for a combined 0.4%.

Renewable electricity generating capacity (including hydro) increased from 1,701 GW to 1,849 GW in 2015, an increase of 8.7%. Renewable capacity (excluding hydro) increased from 665 GW to 785 GW, an increase of 18%.

Renewables accounted for an estimated 62.5% of net additions to electricity supply in 2015 (renewables 147 GW; coal and gas 82 GW; nuclear 6.5 GW).

Wind and solar PV saw record additions for the second consecutive year, accounting for about 77% of new renewable installations, with hydro accounting for most of the remainder.

Investment: For the first time in history, total investment in renewable power and fuels in developing countries in 2015 exceeded that in developed economies. The developing world, including China, India and Brazil, committed a total of US$156 billion (up 19% compared to 2014). China increased its investment by 17% to US$103 billion in 2015. Christine Lins, executive secretary of REN21, said: "It clearly shows that the costs have come down so much that the emerging economies are now really focussing on renewables."

Jobs: Employment in the renewable energy sector (not including large-scale hydropower) increased in 2015 to an estimated 8.1 million jobs (direct and indirect), up from 7.7 million in 2014. Solar PV and biofuels provided the largest numbers of renewable energy jobs. Large-scale hydropower accounted for an additional 1.3 million direct jobs.

Australia lagging: In stark contrast to the global renewable energy boom, Clean Energy Council figures released on 31 May 2016 show:2

  • Australian employment in renewable energy has been falling since 2011-12 ‒ 470 direct jobs were lost in the past year, and 5,000 jobs have been lost since 2011-12.
  • Australian investment in renewable energy remains at around A$5 billion below 2011-12 levels.

Future growth and further cost reductions

On the economics of power sources, the REN21 report states: "Electricity from hydro, geothermal and some biomass power sources has been broadly competitive with power from fossil fuels for some time; in favourable circumstances (i.e., with good resources and a secure regulatory framework), onshore wind and solar PV also are cost-competitive with new fossil capacity, even without accounting for externalities. In 2015 and early 2016, expectations of further cost improvements were made evident by record-low winning bids in power auctions in places ranging from Latin America, to the Middle East and North Africa region, to India."

The REN21 report doesn't predict future growth of renewables, but the International Energy Agency in an October 2015 report projected 700 GW of new renewable power capacity from 2015−2020, with renewables projected to account for almost two-thirds of new power generation capacity over that period.3

A June 2016 report by the UN's International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) notes that since 2009, prices for solar PV modules and wind turbines have fallen approximately 80% and 30‒40% respectively.4 With every doubling of cumulative installed capacity, solar PV module prices drop 20% and the cost of electricity from wind farms drops 12%, due to economies of scale and technology improvements.

The IRENA report anticipates further cost reductions. It estimates that by 2025, average electricity costs could decrease 59% for solar PV, 35% for offshore wind, and 26% for onshore wind compared to 2015. Electricity prices for concentrated solar power could also decrease as much as 43%, depending on the technology used. By 2025, the global average cost of electricity from solar PV and onshore wind will be roughly 5‒6 US cents per kilowatt-hour.

In its annual New Energy Outlook report, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) anticipates further sharp reductions in the cost of solar and wind power accompanied by strong growth.5 The report does not assume any further policy measures post-2020 to speed up decarbonisation; i.e. the strong growth of renewables will be driven primarily by economics.

BNEF says solar energy costs, which have already fallen by 80% since 2008, will fall another 60% by 2040. Solar's "precipitous" cost decline sees it emerge as the least-cost generation technology in most countries by 2030. It will account for 3,700 GW, or 43%, of new power generating capacity added from 2016‒40 according to BNEF.

The cost of onshore wind power will fall a further 41% by 2040. It will account for more than 20% of new power generating capacity added from 2016‒40.

Onshore wind and solar will be the cheapest ways of producing electricity in many countries during the 2020s and in most of the world in the 2030s, the report states.

Wind and solar will account for 64% of the 8,600 GW of new power generating capacity added worldwide over the next 25 years, BNEF predicts.

By 2040, zero-emission energy sources will make up 60% of installed capacity.

Electricity generation from wind and solar will rise ninefold to 10,591 TWh by 2040, and to 30% of total global electricity generation, from 5% in 2015.

Prices will remain low for coal and gas, because of falling demand, but wind and solar will still be cheaper than these fossil fuels by 2027 in most parts of the world. "This is a tipping point that results in rapid and widespread renewables development," the BNEF report says.

"With the increase in renewable generation comes a fall in the run-hours of coal and gas plants, contributing to the retirement of 819 GW of coal and 691 GW of gas worldwide over the next 25 years," the report states.

The fossil fuel plants remaining on-line will increasingly be needed, along with new flexible capacity, to help meet peak demand, as well as to ramp up when solar comes offline in the evening. The report states: "As natural gas and coal plants are increasingly idled in favor of renewables, their capacity factors will take a big hit, and lifetime cost of those plants goes up. Think of them as the expensive back-up power for cheap renewables."

The BNEF report has little to say about nuclear power and it anticipates negligible nuclear growth to 2040.6

References:

1. REN21, 2016, 'Renewables 2016 Global Status Report', www.ren21.net/status-of-renewables/global-status-report/

Key findings: www.ren21.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/GSR_2016_KeyFindings1.pdf

Full report: www.ren21.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/GSR_2016_Full_Report_REN21.pdf

2. www.climatecouncil.org.au/record-breaking-year-in-renewables-globally-hi...

3. International Energy Agency, Oct 2015, 'Renewable Energy Medium-Term Market Report', www.iea.org/Textbase/npsum/MTrenew2015sum.pdf

4. IRENA, June 2016, 'The Power to Change: Solar and Wind Cost Reduction Potential to 2025', http://bit.ly/233POFQ

5. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, June 2016, 'New Energy Outlook', www.bloomberg.com/company/new-energy-outlook/

6. See graph: http://about.bnef.com/press-releases/coal-and-gas-to-stay-cheap-but-rene...

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, August 2016