A new United Nations report has found that 2015 set a slew of new records for global investment in clean energy — and furthermore, the bulk of investment was not in places like the United States or Germany but rather in the developing world. But the report also contained a grim punchline when it came to the impact this is having on the broader climate change problem.
The world invested an unprecedented $286 billion in clean energy in 2015, the report found — and with that money purchased a similarly unrivaled 118 gigawatts (or billion watts) of new wind and solar photovoltaic electricity generating capacity, among other installments. More than half of all new generating capacity in 2015 was in renewables, another new record.
In other words, for the very first time, the world spent more money setting up new wind, solar and other installations than it spent on all new coal, gas and nuclear plants. Indeed, if you just stack up renewables investments against new coal and gas investments for the generation of electricity, they were more than twice as large.
China led the way, with 36 percent of all the investment, or $102.9 billion — and developing nations, a group also including India and Brazil, invested more in renewables than developed countries for the first time. (The figures for renewables do not include investment in large hydroelectric dam projects, which stood at another $43 billion in 2015.)
The annual report, Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016, was released Thursday by the United Nations Environment Programme. It was written by the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
“All this happened in a year in which prices of fossil fuel commodities — oil, coal and gas — plummeted, causing distress to many companies involved in the hydrocarbon sector,” the report noted. In other words, we’re adding renewables for reasons that go beyond mere cost (such as concerns about climate change). It doesn’t hurt that wind and solar energy are also getting cheaper.
At the same time, a less noticed milestone also pointed to a key new trend — globally, 250 megawatts (or million watts) worth of electrical storage was also installed at the utility scale, much more than in 2014. Storage is an oft-discussed technology in combination with renewable energy because wind and especially solar energy can be very intermittent, only available to generate electricity when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Storing energy generated at those times is thus seen as a key to enabling technology for renewable energy.
All of this, and yet if you read the report closely, you’ll find that in many ways, the news is not so good — in fact, it’s quite bad.
Yes, the world is adding more renewables than ever. But as the document noted, “the outlook for power sector emissions remains alarming — despite the agreement at COP21 in Paris, and despite the growth of renewables detailed in this report,” noted the document.
How is that possible?
Renewables may have made up more than 50 percent of all new electricity installments, but they only generated 10.3 percent of all global electricity last year, the document found. One reason is simply that there is so much legacy coal, gas, nuclear and other types of generation. Renewables are playing a very, very long game of catch-up at the moment.
And intermittency holds them back further — “wind and solar generate power for a lower percentage of the year than other sources such as coal, gas, oil, nuclear, hydro, geothermal and biomass,” the document noted.
That game is made still harder by the fact that the world hardly stopped adding fossil fuels in 2015. The report actually finds that a huge 85 gigawatts worth of new coal-fired power plants became operational in 2015, although that was offset by 43 gigawatts worth of plant closures, leaving the net increase at 42 gigawatts. Gas added another 40.
The point is that we are still not only adding fossil fuels but adding new plants that have long lifetimes and will burn coal for decades. This is occurring even as the world as a whole will have a greater demand for power, as electricity is extended to more people and the global population itself increases.
The report therefore forecasts that greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector will still increase out to 2026. And it’s not the only one: “None of the major forecasting organisations see a peak in power sector CO2 emissions this decade, or even early in the next one,” the document noted.
In other words, while there is now a momentous effort afoot to green how we get electricity, it’s still too soon to really turn the corner on the climate problem.
“The CO2 content of the atmosphere looks set to rise sharply beyond the 2015 average of 401 parts per million,” said the document.
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