Renewable sources of electricity overtook coal last year to become the largest source of installed capacity in the world, the International Energy Agency has reported.
Some 153 gigawatts (GW) of net renewable electricity capacity was installed around the world over the course of 2015, up 15 percent on the previous year. For comparison, Canada’s entire electricity capacity in 2014 was 133 GW.
Most of the growth has come from solar and wind, the global body said in its Medium-term Renewable Market Report published this week. Of the total, 63 GW came from onshore wind and 49 GW from solar photovoltaic.
Forty percent of the growth has occurred in China, where reportedly two turbines were built every hour on average last year. The People’s Republic is expected to continue to lead the world in growth in renewables for the foreseeable future, followed by the United States, then the European Union.
“When people talk about China, they think about coal, but it is changing,” said IEA chief Fatih Birol.
Looking forward, the renewables sector is expected to climb by 42 percent between 2015 and 2021.
The organization credits what it describes as “a transformation of global power markets led by renewables” to two factors. The first is a sharp reduction in costs for solar and onshore wind. Over the coming five years, costs for solar photovoltaic are predicted to drop by a further 25 percent and for onshore wind by 15 percent.
The second major factor has been government subsidies for the installation of renewable capacity. Over the next five years, policy changes in four key countries will drive much of the new growth: the US, China, India and Mexico.
The agency is careful to point out however that it is only the capacity to generate electricity that has surpassed coal, not the actual amount of electricity produced. Because wind and solar are intermittent—producing less or no electricity when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, and at other times producing more electricity than needed—the proportion of actual generation remains much lower than coal, gas, hydro and nuclear, which can generate electricity at any time of the day.
Renewable sources of electricity are predicted to deliver 28 percent of generation by 2021, up from 23 percent last year. But most of this will come from existing hydroelectric dams. Hydro represented 71 percent of global renewable generation in 2015. Wind generated 15 percent, bio-energy eight percent and solar just four percent.
The report authors also warn that despite the significant growth in the sector, this is still insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement’s 2°C maximum increase in average global temperatures above pre-industrial times by the end of the century.
In addition, the IEA notes, while growth in clean electricity capacity has soared in the last few years, renewable penetration for transport and heating remains slow.
Hydroelectricity has long been assumed to be a cornerstone of any future low-carbon economy, but disappearing glaciers are altering the equation