Henry Plange, a power generation engineer, checks temperatures of solar panels at the Space Coast Next Generation Solar Center, in Merritt Island, Fla.
The world added more renewable energy capacity than ever before last year, despite tumbling prices for fossil fuels, a new report has found.
An estimated 147 gigawatts of renewable capacity was added in 2015, the largest annual increase ever, the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21) said in its most recentreport, unveiled Tuesday. For perspective, one gigawatt is enough energy to power Walt Disney World for nearly 17 days.
Solar and wind energy saw record additions for the second consecutive year, accounting for about 77 percent of new installations, according to the report. Hydropower represented most of the rest. By the end of 2015, the world had enough renewable energy to supply nearly 24 percent of global electricity, though hydropower provided about 17 percent of that capacity. Not including hydropower, China tops the list for renewable energy capacity, followed by the United States, Germany, Japan, and India.
Renewable energy growth comes amid declining fossil fuel prices and continuing fossil fuel subsidies, as well as amid regulatory barriers in parts of the world. Meanwhile, employment in the renewable energy sector — not including large-scale hydropower — increased to an estimated 8.1 million jobs last year. The leading renewable energy employers last year were China, Brazil, the United States, and India, according to the report.
It notes, too, that global investment in renewables has increased. And indeed, renewable energy investment set a new world record in 2015, with emerging economies led by China topping the investment of developed nations for the first time. Last year, the world invested $286 billion in green energy — some 3 percent more than the last record set in 2011 — mostly on wind and solar.
This REN21 report is the latest to document an exponential growth in global renewable energy development. Most reports this year have dissected investment figures, not actual power capacity installed. Either way, renewables growth has been ongoing year after year, and it’s happening while many see renewables as an important tool to keep up economic growth, and the only way to steer the energy system to the low-carbon future envisioned in the Paris agreement. Countries seem to be committed to renewable energy: Some 110 countries out of 196 on the planet have a some kind of renewable energy policy in place, according to the report. Countries are also aiming for efficiency. By the end of last year, at least 146 countries had enacted an energy efficiency policy, and at least 128 countries had one or more energy efficiency targets.
But the report also notes some setbacks, particularly in investment. Developing countries may be beating developed countries in renewable energy investment, but that comes as developed countries — particularly Europe — are lagging behind. Developed countries' investment as a group declined by 8 percent in 2015 to $130 billion. Europe invested 21 percent less in 2015 than the year before, according to the report. That's despite the region’s record year of financing for offshore wind power. Moreover, investment in renewable energy has been weighted increasingly towards wind and solar power. In fact, all technologies except solar and wind power have seen investment decline since 2014.
Another setback in 2015 was the use of renewables for heating and cooling. Although the total capacity and generation of renewable heating and cooling technologies continued to rise, the growth rate of people actually using these technologies fell in 2015, due in part to low global oil prices. The report also notes there is a “slow pace" of adoption of policies supporting renewable heating and cooling technologies. Renewables now provide approximately 8 percent of the energy for heating and cooling in buildings and industry. That's noteworthy, considering that in the United States, buildings account for 40 percent of electricity use.
Renewable energy use for transport, another huge chunk of energy use worldwide, is also minimal and mostly revolves around biofuels, according to the report. Renewable energy accounted for an estimated 4 percent of global fuel for road transport last year. And yet the United States, similar to the rest of the world, uses nearly 30 percent of energy to move people and goods.
The report concludes that fossil fuel subsidies have to be phased out, as they distort the true costs of energy and encourage wasteful spending. In 2014, the world gave some $600 billion in subsidies to fossil fuels, while renewable energy received slightly over $100 billion, according to a recentstudy. It also notes that lawmakers need to remove barriers preventing the increased share of renewables in heating, cooling, and transport.
In the U.S., the Senate and the House have recently approved energy bills aiming to modernize energy infrastructure and promote energy efficiency. However, environmentalists have frowned on both efforts, as both bills continue to push for fossil fuel infrastructure and research.