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This will give you hope: Developing countries are racing to install wind and solar

Indian workers construct part of the France-India Solar Direct Punjab Solar Park project in Muradwala on Feb. 6, 2015. (Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)
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There’s been a lot of glum news on the climate front lately, including the latest stats on the growing number of people who will be exposed to extreme heat, and analyses underscoring just how far off track we are from staying within a safe range of overall warming.

But if you want news that will give you hope, a new report from Pew’s Clean Energy Initiative is the place to turn. Looking at the future of global energy, it finds that the world stands to install more than 5,500 gigawatts worth of electricity capacity between now and 2030 — spending some $ 7.7 trillion in energy investments. And “two thirds of that is going to be invested in clean energy,” said Phyllis Cuttino,  director of Pew’s Clean Energy Initiative.

What’s more, two thirds of new energy capacity will also be devoted to powering developing countries, which stand to install a monstrous 4,100 gigawatts of new capacity by 2030, more than double the current 2,800 gigawatts. So in these nations, clean energy is, unmistakably, the future.

“Clearly the trajectory is that the market is expanding, that clean energy is going to meet the majority of demand,”  Cuttino said.

The world is set to see tremendous growth in wind and solar energy installations in particular, and renewable installations between 2012 and 2030 will see an “expected 594 percent increase worldwide,” Pew says.

The Pew report does not calculate what this would mean for global greenhouse gas emissions, or whether this rate of clean energy growth is rapid enough to help the planet stay within an emissions threshold that would prevent a dangerous 2 degrees Celsius of global warming over pre-industrial levels. Other recent studies have suggested that clean energy is not growing rapidly enough to keep us within a climate safe zone.

[The key climate and clean energy problem of 2015: Doing a lot isn’t the same as doing enough]

Still, the growth is impressive. To give an example of what clean energy growth in emerging markets looks like at present, the Pew study identified the top 10 non-OECD countries for clean energy investments from 2009-2013. The countries were Thailand (# 1 with $ 5.6 billion in investment), Bulgaria (which, like Thailand, saw more than $3 billion invested just in solar), Ukraine, Kenya, Peru, Taiwan, Morocco, Vietnam, Pakistan (which led the pack with $ 1.635 billion invested in wind) and the Philippines.

These countries, like the rest of the world, still largely rely on fossil energy — but their trajectory is unmistakable. Over the same  period, from 2009 through 2013, they added just 10 percent to their fossil energy capacity, but 91 percent to their clean energy capacity, according to Pew.

The pull of clean energy comes not only from the increasing price competitiveness of technologies like solar, but also because nations around the world are increasingly conscious of the need to fight climate change — and, because they, like the U.S., would prefer not to be dependent on other countries for fuel.

The figures in the Pew report also underscore the energy phenomenon that has been dubbed “leapfrogging” — in which some emerging markets will go straight to renewables.

“Emerging markets can deploy solar, wind  and other renewable technologies without costly grid infrastructure, making it possible for developing countries to leapfrog the 20th-century model of energy service provision and employ the 21st-century solution of distributed service delivery, as they have done successfully in the telecommunications sector,” notes the report.

For the United States, said Pew’s Cuttino, the trend is a major business opportunity to sell large amounts of renewable energy technology around the world — provided, that is, that we remain a world leader in the sector.

“This ought to be a priority for the world for climate reasons, but it also ought to be a priority for the United States for export reasons,” she said.