A US$286-billion investment in 2015 produced 147 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity worldwide in spite of continuing massive subsidies to fossil industries, in what the Paris-based REN21 secretariat describes as an “extraordinary year” for renewable energy.
“What is truly remarkable about these results is that they were achieved at a time when fossil fuel prices were at historic lows, and renewables remained at a significant disadvantage in terms of government subsidies,” said REN21 Executive Secretary Christine Lins. “For every dollar spent boosting renewables, nearly four dollars were spent to maintain our dependence on fossil fuels.”
The report “reveals that renewables are now firmly established as competitive, mainstream sources of energy in many countries around the world,” REN21 states. “Cities, communities, and companies are leading the rapidly expanding ‘100% renewable’ movement, playing a vital role in advancing the global energy transition.”
The top-line figures in the report excluded renewable heating and cooling, which are also on the rise, as well as hydroelectric projects above 50 MW.
REN21 attributes the year’s blockbuster reports to the falling cost of renewable energy sources, which “are now cost-competitive with fossil fuels in many markets,” and to government leadership: by early this year, 173 countries had established renewable energy targets, and 146 had introduced supportive policies.
“Additional growth factors include better access to financing, concerns about energy security and the environment, and the growing demand for modern energy services in developing and emerging economies,” all leading to a growth spiral for renewables.
“With increased investment came an increase in technological advances, cost reductions, and jobs,” the release states. “There are now 8.1 million people working in the renewable energy sector—representing steady growth in stark contrast with depressed labour markets in the broader energy sector.”
REN21 echoes earlier reports that developing nations’ renewable energy investments now exceed activity in developed countries for the first time, with China accounting for more than one-third of the total worldwide.
But the report points to challenges ahead in integrating large proportions of renewable energy on centralized power grids, addressing policy, regulatory, and fiscal barriers, and focusing more effectively on transportation, heating, and cooling.
“The renewables train is barreling down the tracks, but it’s running on 20th century infrastructure—a system based on outdated thinking, where conventional baseload is generated by fossil fuels and nuclear power,” said REN21 Chair Arthouros Zervos.
“To accelerate the transition to a healthier, more-secure and climate-safe future, we need to build the equivalent of a high-speed rail network—a smarter, more flexible system that maximizes the use of variable sources of renewable energy, and accommodates decentralized and community-based generation.”