At first sight the story of renewable energy in the rich world looks like a waste of time and money. Rather than investing in research, governments have spent hundreds of millions of pounds, euros and dollars on subsidising technology that does not yet pay its way. Yet for all the blunders, renewables are on the march. In 2013 global renewable capacity in the power industry worldwide was 1,560 gigawatts (GW), a year-on-year increase of more than 8%. Of that total, hydropower accounted for about 1,000GW, a 4% rise; other renewables went up by nearly 17% to more than 560GW. True, after eight years of continuous increase, the amount invested dropped steeply in 2012 amid uncertainty about future subsidies and investment credits. But thanks to increased efficiency, less money still bought more power.
Measuring progress is tricky: the cost of electricity from new solar systems can vary from $90 to $300 per megawatt hour (MWh). But it is clearly plummeting. In Japan the cost of power produced by residential photovoltaic systems fell by 21% in 2013. As a study for the United Nations Environment Programme notes, a record 39GW of solar photovoltaic capacity was constructed in 2013 at a lesser cost than the 2012 total of 31GW. In the European Union (EU), renewables, despite a 44% fall in investment, made up the largest portion (72%) of new electric generating capacity for the sixth year running.
The clearest sign of health in the renewables market is smoke-clogged China, which in 2013 invested over $56 billion, more than all of Europe, as part of a hurried shift towards clean energy. China’s investment included 16GW of wind power and 13GW of solar. The renewable-power capacity China installed in that year was bigger than its new fossil-fuel and nuclear capacity put together.
- READ MORE