New UN report takes stock of renewable energy’s decade-long growth spurt

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  • 2018 was the ninth year in a row in which renewable energy capacity investments exceeded $200 billion and the fifth year in a row in which they exceeded $250 billion, according to a report released by the UN ahead of the Climate Action Summit to be held in New York City later this month.
  • That means that, by the time it’s over, the current decade — 2010 to 2019 — will have seen a total of $2.6 trillion in renewable energy investments and a four-fold increase in global renewable energy capacity (excluding large hydroelectric dams, i.e. those with electricity generation capacity of 50 megawatts or more).
  • Of all the major generating technologies, including those that burn fossil fuels, solar accounts for 638 GW of new power capacity installed since 2010, the largest single share claimed by any technology. Coal-fired power comes in second at 529 GW, wind in third at 487 GW, and gas in fourth at 438 GW.

Thanks to the nearly $280 billion invested in electricity generation from renewable sources last year — three times the amount invested in coal and gas-fired generation capacity combined — a record 167 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity was installed around the globe, beating the previous record of 160 gigawatts set in 2017.

2018 was the ninth year in a row in which renewable energy capacity investments exceeded $200 billion and the fifth year in a row in which they exceeded $250 billion, according to a report released by the UN ahead of the Climate Action Summit to be held in New York City later this month. That means that, by the time it’s over, the current decade — 2010 to 2019 — will have seen a total of $2.6 trillion in renewable energy investments and a four-fold increase in global renewable energy capacity (excluding large hydroelectric dams, i.e. those with electricity generation capacity of 50 megawatts or more).

By the close of 2009, the world was capable of producing 414 gigawatts (GW) of energy from renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal, the report states. When 2019 comes to an end, the world is projected to have just over 1,650 GW of renewable generation capacity.

Half of the investments made since 2010 went towards building out solar capacity, with the result being that more gigawatts of solar energy were installed over the past decade than any other generation technology. There will be 663 GW of solar capacity by the end of 2019, per the report, up from 25 GW at the beginning of the decade.

Jon Moore, CEO of BloombergNEF (BNEF), the research company that provided the data and analysis for the report, noted that a major factor in the growth of clean energy technologies is their falling cost, which has made them increasingly competitive with fossil-fueled electricity generation.

“Sharp falls in the cost of electricity from wind and solar over recent years have transformed the choice facing policy‐makers,” Moore said in a statement. “These technologies were always low-carbon and relatively quick to build. Now, in many countries around the world, either wind or solar is the cheapest option for electricity generation.”

Germany’s Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Svenja Schulze, says that his country will be producing at least two-thirds of its electricity from renewable sources within the next 10 years. But he added that, despite the gains made by the renewable sector over the past decade, the pace of investments in clean energy — and the phasing out of fossil fuels like coal — must be ratcheted up even further.

“We are demonstrating that an industrial country can phase out coal and, at the same time, nuclear energy without putting its economy at risk. We know that renewables make sense for the climate and for the economy,” Schulze said in a statement. “Yet we are not investing nearly enough to decarbonize power production, transport and heat in time to limit global warming to 2C or ideally 1.5C. If we want to achieve a safe and sustainable future, we need to do a lot more now in terms of creating an enabling regulatory environment and infrastructure that encourage investment in renewables.”

Solar accounts for 638 GW of the 2,366 GW of new power generation capacity the world netted since 2010, the largest single share claimed by any technology, including those that burn fossil fuels. Coal-fired power comes in second at 529 GW, wind in third at 487 GW, and gas in fourth at 438 GW.

In total, renewables supplied 12.9 percent of global electricity consumption last year, up from 11.6 percent in 2017. The UN report estimates that about 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions were avoided in 2018 alone due to renewable energy usage. The energy sector globally was responsible for about 13.7 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2018.

“Investing in renewable energy is investing in a sustainable and profitable future, as the last decade of incredible growth in renewables has shown,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme. (Andersen appeared on the Mongabay Newscast back in January 2019, when she was still director general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature).

“But we cannot afford to be complacent. Global power sector emissions have risen about 10 per cent over this period. It is clear that we need to rapidly step up the pace of the global switch to renewables if we are to meet international climate and development goals.”

The Solar Settlement, a sustainable housing community project in Freiburg, Germany. Photo by Andrewglaser, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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