Environment

Record levels of renewable energy in 2016, but what else do the numbers say?

Record levels of renewable ene...
If scientists can figure out a way to make it a reliable source of energy, every year could be a boom year for solar power
If scientists can figure out a way to make it a reliable source of energy, every year could be a boom year for solar power
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If scientists can figure out a way to make it a reliable source of energy, every year could be a boom year for solar power
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If scientists can figure out a way to make it a reliable source of energy, every year could be a boom year for solar power
In particular, 2016 was a boom year for solar power, with solar capacity additions reaching a high of 75 gigawatts
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In particular, 2016 was a boom year for solar power, with solar capacity additions reaching a high of 75 gigawatts

According to a new study published by UN Environment, the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the installation of renewable power capacity hit a record high last year, adding 138.5 gigawatts to the global power capacity, the approximate equivalent of 16 of the world's largest existing power producing facilities combined. Not only that, but this increase came at a lower investment cost due to falling technology prices. Given this scenario and with more cities pledging to go 100 percent renewable, is green energy ready to be considered a serious mainstream contender to fossil fuels?

Making a case for renewable energy

Solar and wind power were the main drivers of this surge in new electricity generating capacity, due to the falling costs of solar photovoltaics and wind, followed by other renewables such as biomass and waste-to-energy, geothermal, small hydro and marine sources. In particular, 2016 was a boom year for solar power, with solar capacity additions reaching a high of 75 gigawatts, the first time there was "significantly more" of this energy source added than any other generating technology.

In the US, solar energy grew by 38 percent (0.15 quads), buoyed by a decrease in the price of photovoltaic panels over the past decade. Use of wind power, on the other hand, grew by 19 percent (0.33 quads).

"Generous incentives for renewable energy, combined with improved 'know-how' in siting and building wind farms, has led to a favorable environment for growth in this sector," says A.J. Simon, group leader for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

For green energy advocates, the environmental factor is one more reason to endorse it: last year's renewables generation prevented the emission of some 1.7 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (equivalent to the emissions from 211,233,570 passenger vehicles in one year). Had these installations not been built, the world's greenhouse gas problems would be "significantly worse," say the authors.

Looking beyond the numbers

While these figures might support a global shift to renewable energy, challenges still exist for implementing it on a large scale. For a start, even though its growth figures have been increasing for the past five years, renewable energy, excluding large hydro, accounted for just a small fraction – 11.3 percent, to be precise – of the total global electricity generation last year.

One of the on-going challenges of implementing renewable energy on a massive scale is that there is still no vast storage technology capable of storing solar and wind energy, and turning it into a reliable source of power. This means that fossil fuel plants will continue to be a part of the energy landscape to fill in for the times when the sun and wind aren't producing any energy. In addition, they will have to be kept running even when they're not needed, since operators can't simply shut them down and restart them when the need arises.

Secondly, the current power grid system was designed with fossil fuels in mind and thus lacks the flexibility to take into account the fluctuations in weather. Even though there might be more solar and wind energy farms being built, this does not guarantee that everyone will be able to benefit from the power generated without proper transmission lines to distribute it evenly. The consequences of not having such an infrastructure in place can be seen in the case of Chile, whose solar farms produced so much power last year that it had to be given away for free as there was no way to distribute it to regions outside their grid.

In particular, 2016 was a boom year for solar power, with solar capacity additions reaching a high of 75 gigawatts
In particular, 2016 was a boom year for solar power, with solar capacity additions reaching a high of 75 gigawatts

In Europe, market imbalances (i.e. a surge of solar power during a period of low demand) and the lack of a flexible power grid system have resulted in wholesale electricity prices going into negative figures for brief periods, a situation that is popping up in other cities as solar power grows, as was the case in California recently.

While this might sound like good news, negative power prices don't translate into cost savings for end users, since retail rates are based on averages. In fact, despite its electricity glut, California has the seventh-highest electricity rate in the country, with residents paying 18.44 cents per kilowatt hour. For companies that own power plants, these surpluses and low prices often end up hurting their bottom line, which in turn discourages investment. Indeed, as the report notes, countries such as Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, South Africa and Morocco all saw investment falling by more than 60 percent, owing to a slowdown in electricity demand and financing issues.

"[The] structure of electricity markets continues to be a challenge not just for renewable energy developers but also for energy ministries around the world," write the authors. "There is the issue of how to reward flexible generation and storage, so that the system is always able to respond when wind and solar generation drops."

According to the report, investors pledged a record US$41.6 billion to finance technologies such as smart meters and energy storage to help address these challenges. Apart from these solutions, hybrid projects, which combine two different kinds of renewable energy technologies, are also gaining momentum as a potential solution to the problem of intermittency. The idea is that situating two or more of them together not only increases the electricity output from each hectare of land while sharing one grid connection, but also reduces overall intermittency and operating costs. According to estimates, there are around 20 renewable energy hybrid projects that have been completed or are in the process of being developed.

The full report can be accessed online.

Sources: UN Environment, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

14 comments
MarkGoldes
24/7 solar powered engines are being born. They will provide an alternative to solar panels and later to wind and solar farms. Since there is no combustion they can be made largely of polymers (plastic) using 3-D printing. See aesopinstitute.org
apprenticeearthwiz
Storage used to be the major, if not the only, problem with this exponentially growing, economically superior, disruptive technology. It's no longer a problem, the tech across the board in this energy transition keeps getting better and the costs keep falling. The only relevant question is how long till the end of the fossil fuel era? Judging by the behaviour of previous exponentially growing, economically superior, disruptive technology, probably a lot sooner than people think.
watersworm
A very good analysis. So-called Renewable are not THE solution of electricity producting. It's the clecrest mix that is the solution. Thinking of 100% renewable is still and for long a very costly utopia.
MartinVoelker
I just heard David Mooney, the Director of NREL's Strategic Energy Analysis Center who pointed out that China’s massive wind deployment (now twice that of the US at 145.4GW) achieves much smoother power delivery as the geographic and weather differences between wind sites average out. These scale effects take much of the sting out of the intermittency problem.
Rann Xeroxx
R&D needs to be poured into nuclear power. Power plants in the US all use tech developed from the 50's but nuclear systems such as the proposed pebble bed reactor cannot melt down, does not use water for cooling, and produce little in the way of waste. Nuclear has problems outside of waste in that its an all or nothing production unlike fossils that can be run at needed capacity. All options should be on the table.
Rusty Harris
"If scientists can figure out a way to make it a reliable source of energy, every year could be a boom year for solar power" Only way for that to work, is to have the sun be available 24/7. Or, somehow place the panels in space, and figure out a way to transmit their power back to earth.
ljaques
I'm adding solar to my own house, but I'm aware at how little it really matters yet. The total of all solar installations in the USA can power only 210,000 homes, and only comes to 0.92% of power used. I think that as alternative energies grow, we need to add micro nuclear to take advantage of this and to provide power while the sun ain't shinin'. And we need to do it before the grid goes down due to nature, age, or terrorism.
DaleBarclay
It is a problem of storing the energy generated. Once that is accomplished fossil fuel generating plants will run less than they do now. But how should it be stored? In each customer's home or at a large utility owned battery park? Could not think of a better name for it.
Jonathan Cole
Actually there is one obvious solution and we are working on bringing it to mass-production and worldwide markets. It is the micro-integration of solid-state solar panels, long life battery storage such as LTO SCiB batteries by Toshiba ( http://www.scib.jp/en/product/ ) micro inverters and charge controllers coupled with wireless micro-computers. We call it SunPax. We have already built a proof of concept and are trying to raise financial support to bring it to mass production. A description is available here: http://lightontheearth.org/sunpax.html This product will remove most of the soft costs of solar (engineering and permitting) and will provide electricity from solar 24/7 for less than 8 cents a kWh. A proof of concept has already been built. SunPax can be used as a distributed generator, or in solar farms. Its low cost will allow even people in developing countries to have a reliable source of electricity for charging phones, computers, TVs, lighting and refrigeration. We need to deploy renewable energy very quickly to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Because of the benign nature of solar and the simplicity of manufacturing and distributing this type of integrated solar appliance as compared to nuclear, tidal, hydro-power, etc this approach must be quickly ramped up. There is room for thousands of companies to be developing and supplying such integrated solar appliances. This is very similar to the beginning of the mass-produced automobile which engendered many thousands of manufacturers. That is what must happen now to avoid the collapse of the planetary eco-system and the related suffering that will fall upon the human race.
Charles Hoss
"negative power prices don't translate into cost savings for end users, since retail rates are based on averages." finally - I always felt that negative numbers can't be counted into averages. now, since it's on the net - it became a fact.