Advancing the Global Renewable Energy Transition
UN Photo/Ariane Rummery
story highlights

Newly installed renewable power capacity set new records in 2016, with 161 gigawatts (GW) added, increasing the global total by almost 9% relative to 2015.

There has been an upsurge in cities, states, countries and major corporations committing to 100% renewable energy targets because it makes economic and business sense, quite apart from climate, environment and public health benefits.

Even in the transport sector, which arguably faces the greatest challenges in transitioning to a renewable energy future, major changes are under way.

The 2017 edition of the REN21 Renewables Global Status Report (GSR) reveals a global energy transition well under way, with record new additions of installed renewable energy capacity, rapidly falling costs, particularly for solar PV and wind power, and the decoupling of economic growth and energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for the third year running.

Here are some of the highlights, demonstrating real progress towards key Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDGs 7 (affordable and clean energy), 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and 13 (climate action).

Newly installed renewable power capacity set new records in 2016, with 161 gigawatts (GW) added, increasing the global total by almost 9% relative to 2015. Solar PV was the star performer in 2016, accounting for around 47% of the total additions, followed by wind power at 34% and hydropower at 15.5%. The world now adds more renewable power capacity annually than it adds in net new capacity from all fossil fuels combined. These new capacity records illustrate real movement towards SDG target 7.2 of increasing substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.

2016 was the third year in a row where global energy-related CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry remained stable despite a 3% growth in the global economy and an increased demand for energy.

Cost for electricity from solar PV and wind is rapidly falling. Record-breaking tenders for solar PV occurred in Argentina, Chile, India, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with bids in some markets below USD 0.03 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Parallel developments in the wind power sector saw record low bids in several countries, including Chile, India, Mexico and Morocco. Record lows in offshore wind power tenders in Denmark and the Netherlands brought Europe’s industry closer to its goal to produce offshore wind power more cheaply than coal by 2025.

2016 was the third year in a row where global energy-related CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry remained stable despite a 3% growth in the global economy and an increased demand for energy. This can be attributed primarily to the decline in coal consumption, but also to the growth in renewable energy capacity and to improvements in energy efficiency. The decoupling of economic growth and CO2 emissions is an important first step towards achieving the steep decline in emissions necessary for holding global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius (°C) in line with the Paris Agreement. This progress also supports SDG target 7.3 of doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency.

The myth that fossil and nuclear power are needed to provide “baseload” electricity supply when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing has been shown to be false. In 2016, Denmark and Germany successfully managed peaks of 140% and 86.3%, respectively, of electricity generation from renewable sources, and in several countries (Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus, for example), achieving annual shares of 20-30% electricity from variable renewables without additional storage is becoming feasible. The key lesson for integrating large shares of variable renewable generation is to ensure maximum flexibility in the power system.

There has been an upsurge in cities, states, countries and major corporations committing to 100% renewable energy targets because it makes economic and business sense, quite apart from climate, environment and public health benefits. Throughout 2016, the number of major corporations, cities, states and countries across the globe committed to transitioning to 100% renewable energy – in total energy use or in the electricity sector – continued to grow. Under the Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, more than 7,200 communities with a combined population of 225 million people are committed to reducing emissions 40% by 2030, by increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy deployment. This steady engagement demonstrates real progress towards achieving SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities).

A paradigm shift is under way in the developing world, where billions of people still live without access to electricity (around 1.2 billion) and/or clean cooking facilities (around 2.7 billion). The cumbersome process of providing electricity access through grid extension alone is becoming obsolete as new business models and technologies enable the development of off-grid markets. Markets for both mini-grids and stand-alone systems are evolving rapidly. Bangladesh, with 4 million units installed, has the largest solar home system market using mainly microcredit schemes. Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) business models, supported by mobile technology are exploding. In 2012, investments in PAYG solar companies amounted to only USD 3 million; by 2016 that figure had risen to USD 223 million (up from USD 158 million just one year before). The mini-grid market now exceeds USD 200 billion annually. In 2016, more than 23 MW of solar PV and wind power based mini-grid projects were announced.

The notion that renewable energy is something that only rich countries can afford is not valid. Most new renewable energy capacity is being installed in developing countries, mainly in China. With a solar revolution taking off in India, and with 48 developing countries now committed to 100% renewable energy goals, the developing country share of total global renewable energy capacity is likely to increase further. The myth that renewable energy is too expensive, or that only a handful of rich countries continue to lead the way, has been discredited. In many cases, renewable power is now the least-cost option.

Even in the transport sector, which arguably faces the greatest challenges in transitioning to a renewable energy future, major changes are under way. Although policy support for renewable energy use in the transport sector continues to focus primarily on biofuel blends, policies to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles (EVs) are emerging. In 2016, global passenger EV sales reached an estimated 775,000 vehicles, and more than 2 million of the vehicles were on the world’s roads by year’s end. Rail transport, which accounts for about 2% of the total energy used in the transport sector, are seeing renewables starting to enter the game.

Enabling technologies are facilitating and advancing the deployment of renewable energy. ICT (information and communication technology), storage systems, EVs and heat pumps – to name a few – are facilitating and advancing the deployment of renewable energy. Even though these technologies were not developed for this purpose originally, they are showing tremendous capacity to facilitate greater system integration and more effective demand response. Storage, in particular, is starting to receive a lot of attention, given its potential for providing additional flexibility to the power system.

In conclusion, innovative and more sustainable ways of meeting our energy needs – through better-integrated sectoral planning, the adoption of exciting new business models and the more creative use of enabling technologies – are accelerating the paradigm shift away from a world run on fossil fuels.

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