Record surge in renewable energy

The rapid growth of renewable energy has reached a new milestone, with renewable sources contributing more than two-thirds of new power added to the world’s electricity supply in 2016. The figures come from the International Energy Agency, whose director described them as ‘the birth of a new era in solar photovoltaics’.

Renewable energy, particularly solar power, has made massive strides in recent years, but the figures from the IEA’s medium-term renewables market report took even experienced observers by surprise. Net additions to renewable energy capacity – which covers hydropower, solar, wind, bioenergy, wave and tidal sources – set another world record, growing by 165 gigawatts, 6% more than in 2015. The figures caused the IEA to revise upwards by about 12% its estimate of the amount of renewable energy likely to be available in 2022.

Solar power was the fastest-growing source of new energy worldwide, overtaking the growth in all other forms of energy. It means solar is for the first time a bigger source of new power generation than coal, largely due to falling prices of solar infrastructure, as well as China’s commitment to solar power. The IEA’s executive director Fatih Birol said: ‘What we are witnessing is the birth of a new era in solar photovoltaics. We expect solar PV capacity growth will be higher than any other renewable technology up to 2022.’

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Seb Henbest said in a blog that current long-term energy forecasts ‘would have been seen as wildly fanciful just a decade ago’. He said that, as solar and wind costs continue to decline sharply, ‘it becomes a matter of when, not if, these technologies get cheaper than other forms of power generation.’

Henbest added: ‘We see two tipping points ahead. The first is when a new solar or wind project can compete directly with a new coal or gas plants in the absence of subsidies. The second is when that new solar or wind project is cheaper than continuing to run coal and gas power stations that are already built.’ He says tipping point one is either already, or almost, upon us in all major markets, and tipping point two could be just 10 years away.