Energy

Renewables rising: Global clean energy capacity leaves coal in the dust

Half a million solar panels were installed around the world every day in 2015
Half a million solar panels were installed around the world every day in 2015
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Half a million solar panels were installed around the world every day in 2015
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Half a million solar panels were installed around the world every day in 2015

The shift away from fossil fuels towards a low-carbon world is more a very gradual steering correction than a simple u-turn, but the latest report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests we are changing direction faster than expected. Renewables have now overtaken coal as the world's largest source of installed power capacity, and the agency's projections over the next five or so years paint a pretty promising picture for the industry indeed.

With wind and solar leading the charge, renewables added a record 153 GW of power capacity in 2015, which represents more than half of the world's new power capacity for that year and a 15 percent increase on 2014. A record wind power addition of 66 GW and a record solar photovoltaic addition of 49 GW had a huge part to play. This was illustrated by the half-million solar panels installed around the world every day, and the two wind turbines installed in China every hour across 2015.

The reasons for this unprecedented growth are varied, the agency says, listing advancing technologies, more accommodating policy and growing competition as key factors. The need to cut carbon emissions is a big motivator, but improving air quality and a desire to diversify energy sources to improve energy security also contributed to what is billed as a "turning point" for renewable energy.

But capacity is one thing, and when you're relying on the sun to shine and the wind to blow, actual power generation is very much another.

"Renewable power capacity becoming the largest installed power capacity in the world is a very important milestone on the journey to transition to a sustainable economy and to mitigate the climate change," Emre Gençer, Postdoctoral Associate at the MIT Energy Initiative, tells New Atlas. "However, due to the variability and intermittency in availability of renewable energy sources, the installed capacity does not always reflect the production capacity."

Because coal generation doesn't operate at the mercy of the elements and can be fired up and turned off as needed, it has a higher output than energy gleaned from the sun and the wind. Jeff Logan, Senior Energy Analyst at the US' National Renewable Energy Lab, tells us that IEA figures indicate coal generation exceeded renewable generation by 40 percent in 2014.

"While coal plants generally operate at full output about 60 percent of the time in most markets, wind plants generate power at their full potential about 35 to 40 percent of the time, and solar plants about 20 to 25 percent of the time," he tells New Atlas. "This explains why renewables have more generating capacity than coal, but less overall generation."

In its 2015 World Energy Outlook, the IEA predicted that renewable generation will overtake coal generation in 2030, but the latest report may instil its experts with a little more optimism. The agency now expects renewables to account for more than 60 percent of the growth in global power capacity over the next five years and exceed 7,600 TWh (terawatt hours) by 2021, equal to the combined electricity generation of the US and Europe today.

This is a 13 percent increase on its predictions from the year previous, a change it attributes mostly to more renewable-friendly policy in key markets: the US, China, India and Mexico. Over the same period, it expects costs to become lower, 25 percent for photovoltaic solar and 15 percent for onshore wind.

And with policy starting to push the pieces into place, it is possible that near-term research advances in energy storage might allow us to squeeze more out of these resources during the transition period. Gençer tells us that backup power plants installed and managed in the right way can help address some of the immediate drawbacks of wind and solar energy, giving our journey down the renewables road another healthy nudge along.

"For example, a more stable power output can be achieved by having both wind and solar in power generation portfolio," he explains. "Integration of energy storage systems at different scales is critical to ensure continuous power supply from renewable sources. During the periods of renewable energy availability excessive energy is harnessed and stored. Stored energy is then used when renewable energy sources are not available."

Source: International Energy Agency

19 comments
Leonard Foster Jr
People in the Coal industry have been long warned and this is just the tip of the iceberg
VincentWolf
the beginning of the end of fossil fuels worldwide. First coat, then oil, then gas. It's either renewables or die.
Tom Lee Mullins
I think there is still a place for coal and gas since these 'renewable' resources don't always work everywhere. Solar power does not work very well when they are covered in snow. Wind power is only good when there is a constant wind.
MD
Coal miners of Australia rejoice, metallurgical coal demand isn't affected by lower utilisation of thermal plants. Coking coal is hard to replace.
aksdad
News flash: an even more stable power power output can be achieved by only using base load power plants like coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Renewables only work as supplemental power because they're unreliable. It doesn't matter how much capacity you have if you can't provide power when it's needed. The only practical solution to the unreliability of wind and solar is to keep operating fossil fuel and nuclear power plants to make up the difference. So, no, dear readers, renewables aren't replacing fossil fuels anytime soon. However, going all nuclear, which is the cleanest, "greenest" option, would be an interesting proposition. Incredibly efficient, extremely low waste, no atmospheric pollution...
watersworm
Agree with askdad, specially with the yet to come development of thorium base nuclear power. Anyway the future is in energy MIX smartly applied with local geographic/social conditions. For instance Norvege will continue an almost 100% clean electricity production, since their geography allows so much hydroelectricity, taken in account the low population figures (even with high standards of living). For solar, the best and more efficient is thermal for hot water uses... in somehow sunny/hot countries (though not only).
dugnology
The title is misleading. Coal is still the largest installed base by far, but the renewable energy segment is the fastest growing for NEW energy installations. I believe that mass storage including energy sharing with plugged in cars and new cleaner technology like Thorium reactors or the inevitable fusion reactors will he the key to electrical production. I can see that installed solar for homes will further reduce the need for large distributed grids, local DC buses in homes that will lower electrical conversion drains, and more efficient appliances will help to lower energy usage
habakak
As always, the future will be an energy mix (of mostly renewables). Affordable high-density batteries will make solar and wind power available 24/7. Just like with redundancy or excess capacity fossil fuel plants, there will be peaker or excess renewable capacity. Nuclear is too expensive although it's something we should pursue. Eventually hopefully fusion. The transition to a completely renewable energy system will take many decades, but the pendulum is swinging.
Lbrewer42
I have to wonder how much of this is unscientific propaganda at its roots? When we were being told under obama how wonderful the large windmills were - the fact was that they were more expensive to run b/c not only did they have to have diesel generators backing them up to keep a constant supply, but also they had not even developed a lubricant capable of keeping the things going without overheating. The number of times of changing what lubricants they had also made for a lot of expense (check youtube for these things catching fir). Then there was the scandal with the solar company obama gave so much money to. It was uncovered that the company already knew at the time they got the money, that their producy was not capable - and the company was going to fall. But his supporters there did get paid off well. Do the homework for yourself. Then we get down to the fact of every time you will delve into the actual reports behind data that supposedly shows global warming as reality, you find the data is fudged to fit the theory. ts like the ozone hole scare of the 80s and 90s. You could not have the TV on for more than 10 minutes without the shrinking ozone hole being crammed down your throat as an attempt to promote global warming. Then in the year 2000 - while the frenzy was still going, all of a sudden the media fell dead silent on the issue of irreparable damage we had done to the ozone hole. Why? The ozone hole closed up all by itself. Was there a retraction from the global warming crowd? Of course not. But they did make their money off of the scare they initiated. However, this kind of homework takes time, and people would rather ridicule people who won't go with the flow on this money-making dream that can always prove itself right (with media help) every time the actual weather we experience is exactly the opposite of what the doom and gloom people have been claiming all these years. Has happened since its inception. in the late 80s it was claimed we would be planting palm trees on Lake Erie shore by 2000. When, instead the climate overall was experienced as being cooler (despite the scary ozone hole), the GW people said that they were still correct b/c global warming actually could cause global cooling. So the term "Climate Change" was being introduced more ad more on the media to save a little face. Then in 2015 when the IPCC annual reports (each one, in their year had proven global warming), side by side the compiled data showed no warming (download it and read it for youself - google Game Over, The IPCC quietly admits defeat). So in GW circles, they talked about the 15 year hiatus that had occured in GW. Was there ever any official retraction that their reports that they people had used to literally ridicule scoffers were mistaken? Of course not - too much money is being made with newer and greater restrictions. And of course, this is all in light of the fact CO2 is chemically incapable of holding in heat. The radiation it supposedly reflects back to warm the oceans has failed to warm the oceans according to the past 150 years of Naval temperature records.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
If you sit on a bench in English Landing Park in Parkville, MO, you can watch the trains go by. Almost every train is a mile long train, full of coal for Kansas City Power and Light.