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Renewable growth continues

By Dave Elliott

While most future projections show global renewable energy expanding rapidly, some are more cautious and also present optimistic views on oil futures. For example, BP’s Energy Outlook 2016 sees oil still booming up to 2035, although it does see the use of coal falling and renewables expanding: ‘Renewables are expected to account for more than a third of EU power generation by 2035’. However, welcome though that view is, Carbon Brief said, ‘this sits awkwardly against the fact that renewables already supplied a third of EU power in 2014 and continue to expand rapidly’.  

Certainly the data from IRENA’s Renewable Energy Capacity Statistics 2016, show that renewable growth is continuing globally: renewable generation capacity increased world-wide by 152 GW or 8.3% during 2015, the highest annual growth rate on record. Wind power grew 63 GW (17%), thanks to declines in onshore turbine prices of up to 45% since 2010. Solar increased 47 GW (37%) thanks to price drops of up to 80% for solar photovoltaic modules. Hydropower capacity increased by 35 GW (3%). Bioenergy, geothermal and marine energy capacity all increased roughly 5% each (5 GW, 1 GW and 25 MW, respectively). In terms of regional distribution, the fastest growth came in developing countries: Central America and the Caribbean expanded at a rate of 14.5%, while 58% of new additions came from Asia, where capacity expanded at a rate of 12.4%. Capacity increased by 24 GW (5.2%) in Europe and 20 GW (6.3%) in North America.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Michael Liebreich, ‘in terms of renewable penetration, Europe is still the world leader. Renewable energy is likely to have provided some 30% of Germany’s electricity in 2015, about 50% of Denmark’s, 38% of Spain’s, 33% of Italy’s and nearly 25% of the UK’s’. However, in terms of new renewable capacity China is clearly accelerating ahead, with big new investments: wind capacity has surpassed  148GW. And under its new 5 year plan, China aims to at least double its wind energy capacity and nearly treble its solar capacity (to 160GW), accelerating well ahead of the EU.

Certainly, while many newly developing countries and regions are expanding renewables rapidly, the EU has been slowing down. Investment in the EU, after peaking at $132bn in 2011, fell by more than half, to 18% of the global total, or $58bn, in 2015. Liebreich said that it was tragic that ‘Europe lost its renewable energy mojo just as costs were plummeting to the point where green power is fully competitive without subsidies in more and more parts of the world. If solar power can be built for 5.85 U.S. cents/kWh in Dubai, or $4.8 c/kWh in Peru, or 6.4 c/kWh in India, why not in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece or Croatia? If wind power can be delivered for 3 U.S. cents per kWh in Morocco and 4 c/kWh in the US, why not in France, Spain, Portugal, or, heaven forbid, the UK?’.

There is clearly some uncertainly about what will happen next, with oil at least temporarily cheap, although the International Energy Agency’s 2015 World Energy Outlook, looking to 2040, says that ‘driven by continued policy support, renewables account for half of additional global generation, overtaking coal around 2030 to become the largest power source’.v

Although the outlook worries about the relatively slow progress on energy saving, it seems fairly optimistic on renewables, compared with BP projections. In part, however, it’s maybe a matter of presentation and interpretation. BP makes use of ‘tonnes of oil equivalent’ (toes) primary energy. That can be unhelpful. It disguises the fact that only some of this primary fossil energy ends up as finally used energy – much of the rest ends up as waste heat. As Professor Tom Burke from E3G has noted, whereas ‘almost all of the renewable primary energy ends up providing consumers with useful energy services…only about 40% of the primary energy from fossil fuels ends up delivering useful energy services to consumers’. It’s the same for nuclear – the heat energy released by fission is used to raise steam and drive turbines just as in fossil-fired plants, with the same thermodynamic losses. So non-renewables can actually supply much less than what is shown in at least some BP charts. There also seem to be some discrepancies on the basic data, although some say that the often more optimistic data on renewables used by the European Commission is suspect. For example see http://euanmearns.com/eu-renewable-energy-targets-the-compliance-statistics-are-suspect/ and http://euanmearns.com/eu-2020-renewable-energy-targets-part-i/

Although it’s important to acknowledge disagreements like this, along with problems with investment in some regions, and the worrying continued use of coal, the big picture is still that renewables are expanding dramatically and, globally, look set to continue to do so. The Global Wind Energy Council says that global wind power capacity will nearly double to perhaps 800GW in the next 5 years as prices continue to fall and emission targets hit, and, with cost falling dramatically, PV also seem bound to boom globally, with in some locations projects going ahead at 3 US cents /kWh. See: www.apricum-group.com/dubai-shatters-records-cost-solar-earths-largest-solar-power-plant/

The annual REN21 global and national renewable energy status assessments show renewables heading for a 23% electricity contribution and 20% energy contribution globally.

And many longer term scenarios suggest that renewables are likely to supply at least 50% of power, and possibly energy, globally by 2050, and perhaps, with the right support and commitment to energy saving and balancing, even up to 80% or more: www.palgrave.com/page/detail/green-energy-futures-david-elliott/?sf1=barcode&st1=9781137584427

Professor Sir David Mackay, who tragically recently died at 48, had strong views on these issues, buttressed by his analytical work, but saw things very differently, at least for the UK. In a final video he strongly backed nuclear and CCS over renewables as the more reliable and efficient low-carbon options. Quite rightly, he insisted that ‘we need a plan that adds up’, so as to deliver viable, reliable energy. Perhaps he was unaware that several high renewables/non nuclear/low CCS UK scenarios have been produced which do just that, including one I helped produce for the UK Pugwash group, using DECC’s modelling system.

The debate continues, though sadly now without Mackay’s input. While not everyone agreed with his analysis, he certainly did try to put the debate on a more quantitative basis, and via DECC’s open access modelling system, he leaves a major legacy. However, it remains to be seen if all his specific prescriptions will prove correct. So far, although the continued reliance on coal is worrying, the global trends on renewables seem to suggest not.

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