The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is surging faster than policy-makers imagined and energy transition advocates dreamed, several news reports say, with China, the United States, and the European Union leading the way.
China opened 107 gigawatts of new solar capacity last year and plans to add twice as much in 2023. Last year’s new installations were “roughly equivalent to the entire historical installed capacity of the U.S.,” Politico says.
But now, the momentum is extending to other parts of the world.
“The United States is pivoting away from fossil fuels and toward wind, solar, and other renewable energy, even in areas dominated by the oil and gas industries,” the New York Times reports.
“Explosive growth in solar power means most EU countries will hit their 2030 renewable energy targets ahead of time, new data shows, fuelling optimism on efforts to bring down global emissions,” Politico adds.
“Delivery vans in Pittsburgh,” the Times writes. “Buses in Milwaukee. Cranes loading freight at the Port of Los Angeles. Every municipal building in Houston. All are powered by electricity derived from the sun, wind, or other sources of clean energy.”
Add it all up, and “a profound shift is taking place that is nearly invisible to most Americans. The nation that burned coal, oil, and gas for more than a century to become the richest economy on the planet, as well as historically the most polluting, is rapidly shifting away from fossil fuels.”
With climate impacts making some parts of the world unlivable, solar and wind now often cheaper than gas, oil, or coal, and private investment piling in, “renewables are now expected to overtake coal by 2025 as the world’s largest source of electricity,” the Times says. “Automakers have made electric vehicles central to their business strategies and are openly talking about an expiration date on the internal combustion engine. Heating, cooling, cooking, and some manufacturing are going electric.”
With the International Energy Agency projecting $1.7 trillion in renewables investment this year, “it’s astonishing what’s happening,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “Clean energy is moving faster than many people think, and it’s become turbocharged lately.”
The Times acknowledges that fossil fuels still dominate today, with companies pulling in record profits, building new infrastructure, and backing away from their past, half-hearted investments in renewables. “And yet, from Beijing to London, Tokyo to Washington, Oslo to Dubai, the energy transition is undeniably racing ahead. Change is here, even in oil country.”
The Times story profiles energy transition initiatives in several parts of the U.S., including Tulsa, Oklahoma—once known as the “Oil Capital of the World”—as well as Houston, Arkansas, and Georgia.
“With costs falling fast, manufacturing has picked up and installations of solar and wind projects have increased,” the news story states. “The U.S. solar industry installed a record 6.1 gigawatts of capacity in the first quarter of 2023, a 47% increase over the same period last year.”
And in response to those bargain prices, “many of the United States’ biggest corporations, such as Alphabet, Amazon, and General Motors, to purchase large amounts of wind and solar power, because it burnishes their reputations and because it makes good economic sense.”
In the EU, data compiled by SolarPower Europe show nearly two dozen countries on track to hit their 2030 solar targets by 2027, with the bloc adding 41 GW of new solar capacity in 2022 and expecting more than 50 GW this year. The rollout “has been spectacular,” European Environment Agency energy expert Javier Esparrago told Politico, and “all boils down to costs,” after a decade in which the price per kilowatt-hour of solar has dropped 90%.
“In part, the explosive growth is down to plummeting prices for solar panels being mass-produced in China,” Politico says. “The war in Ukraine also created a major incentive for countries to push ahead with solar installations as a way to lower their dependency on Russian energy.”
The emerging challenge is that increased deployment and low power prices in the middle of the day, when the sun shines brightest, will reduce the financial incentive to install more capacity. Keeping up the momentum will depend on grid upgrades, as well as new battery storage capacity, an area where Politico says the EU has been lagging.
One glaring exception is the United Kingdom, a country that was once a leader in the drive to net-zero emissions, where renewable energy investment is now lagging the rest of the world. “The latest government figures reveal the UK’s renewable capacity has fallen to an average increase of 4.45% in the past three years, compared with an average 9.67% annual increase globally,” The Guardian writes. “The analysis follows the government’s announcement that it will approve more than 100 new oil and gas licences.”
As recently as 2015, renewable energy capacity in the UK was growing at a torrid 24.26%, The Guardian says. The more recent data show capacity increases of 1.96% in 2020, 3.65% in 2021, and 7.74% in 2022—even as the then Boris Johnson government tried to spin itself as a climate leader at the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021.
“The rest of the world recorded much higher levels of growth in renewable capacity compared with the UK in the last three years,” The Guardian notes. “In 2020, renewable capacity grew by 10.3%, followed by 9.1% in 2021 and 9.6% in 2022. This averages a 9.67% increase, more than double that of the UK over the same period.”
The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said the comparative numbers just mean other countries are catching up to the UK’s lead. “We won’t apologize for moving faster and earlier on renewable energy than many other countries,” the government agency said.
Roger Fouquet, senior research fellow at the Energy Studies Institute in the National University of Singapore, said renewables investment in countries like Iceland will likely slow down as they approach 100% renewable energy, but the UK isn’t in that ballpark.
“The UK’s current renewable electricity capacity is below 50%, and has a great deal of further investment to undertake to claim to be a leader in low-carbon energy systems,” he told The Guardian. “In fact, 45% of European economies have a higher share of renewable electricity capacity.”