Solar ‘just exploded’ globally. So did coal

Source: By Nathanial Gronewold, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, September 8, 2019

Renewable energy investment has more than tripled globally during the current decade compared to the last 10-year period, new research shows.

Solar photovoltaic generation attracted the most investment dollars by far, followed by wind energy. From 2010 to 2019, more money was spent installing solar generation capacity than on new coal-fired power generating capacity.

Still, most power delivered to the world’s grids during the decade came from coal, the industry assessment concludes, meaning the power sector’s emissions continued to rise globally, exacerbating climate change.

“We see an enormous growth of investment” in renewable energy, said Ulf Moslener, professor of sustainable energy finance at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management and lead author of the report. “Solar alone has just exploded by a factor of 27.”

“However, when we look at the electricity that has actually been produced, that is only down to about 13%, so that means in terms of electricity that’s generally produced … there is still quite, quite a long way to go,” he added.

The “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2019” report was compiled by the Frankfurt School, Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the U.N. Environment Programme. The results show China leading in renewable gigawatts investments, but also in coal-fired generation construction. Yet the research team said renewable power investment in China has fallen sharply because of recent cuts to subsidies by the government.

“A regional analysis of the capacity additions shows that China will have installed by far the highest amount of new capacity of renewables excluding large hydro over the 10 years, at about 451GW, or 36% of the world total,” say the authors. “China has been by far the largest participant in the build-out of both solar and coal, adding more than 200GW of each during the 2010s.”

All told, the report estimates that the world spent some $2.6 trillion on renewable energy projects during the decade, over three times the amount spent from 2000 to 2019. Solar photovoltaic drew in the most investments at about $1.3 trillion, with wind power, both onshore and offshore, attracting about $1 trillion together in investment capital.

China’s spending on renewable electricity topped the global list with $758 billion from 2000 to the first half of 2019, the report finds. The United States came in second with $356 billion, followed by Japan at $202 billion. European nations altogether spent about $698 billion on wind, solar and other renewable energy sources, with Germany and the United Kingdom out in front.

The research team estimates that solar energy capacity grew by 638 gigawatts worldwide between 2009 and 2019. Coal-fired capacity grew by 529 GW over that period, while new wind generation capacity totaled 487 GW, just edging out the growth of natural gas at 436 GW.

Because solar technology doesn’t work at night, the study finds that the world continued to rely on coal for most of its new sources of electricity during the decade, despite the alarm over climate change and a trebling of renewable energy investment.

“Although solar is set to have beaten coal in the 2010s in terms of new capacity, it will not have done so in terms of new electricity generation,” the authors note.

There are other troubling factors for supporters of renewable energy.

The “Global Trends” report finds that investments in renewable power capacity fell 38% in China last year and by about 6% in the United States. However, investments in Europe were found to have risen 45%.

The decline in China is attributed to the end of government subsidies for the renewable energy sector.

A separate industry update published this week by the Brussels-based Global Wind Energy Council predicts a rush of new wind power projects in the United States and China. A new Chinese wind boom may be short-lived, according to Feng Zhao, a GWEC adviser.

“We do significantly increase our installation forecast for 2019 and 2020. This is mainly due to the new regulation released by the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission, called NDRC, on the 21st of May,” Feng explained to reporters in a briefing. “They have come out with a deadline for projects to be grid connected in order to qualify for a relatively higher feed in tariff for both onshore and offshore, and for onshore it’s quite significant because this regulation means that projects will get nothing starting from 2021.”

GWEC predicts that 330 GW of new wind power capacity will come online over the next five years. The growth will be driven primarily by onshore wind power projects in the United States and China, analysts said.

The new report by the Frankfurt School and its partners also notes the struggles by another emissions-free energy technology: nuclear power.

The study finds that net capacity for nuclear power declined 7% over the decade as reactor shutdowns and decommissioning outpaced construction of new reactors. Nuclear power net capacity fell more than any other electricity source. By comparison, oil-fired power generation declined only 2%.

The International Energy Agency has warned that the ongoing loss of emissions-free nuclear power threatens to derail efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and climate change (Energywire, May 28).