Transition to renewables must accelerate

Mixed reports are in about the progress of renewables, with the 2017 edition of the REN21 Renewables Global Status Report revealing the global energy transition is well under way, with record new additions of installed renewable energy capacity, rapidly falling costs, particularly for solar PV and wind power. Despite the positive trends, the pace of transition is not on track to contain temperature rises to well below 2°C struck at the Paris Accord and the report states “the sum total of national pledges would take us well over the 2°C threshold, with best estimates ranging between 2.3°C and 3.5°C”.

REN21 notes newly installed renewable power capacity set new records in 2016 with 161 GW added, boosting the global total by almost 9 per cent relative to 2015. Solar PV was the star performer in 2016, accounting for around 47 per cent of the total additions, followed by wind power at 34 per cent and hydropower at 15.5 per cent. For the fifth consecutive year, investment in new renewable power capacity (including all hydropower) was roughly double the investment in fossil fuel generating capacity, reaching USD 249.8 billion. The world now adds more renewable power capacity annually than it adds in net new capacity from all fossil fuels combined.

At the same time cost of 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 US$ 0.03 kWh.

With the right policies in place, the power sector could be emissions-free by mid-century, REN21 finds.

REN 21 singles out enabling technologies saying they are facilitating and advancing the deployment of renewable energy and that ICT, storage systems, EVs and heat pumps – to name a few – are facilitating and advancing the deployment of renewable energy. Storage, in particular, is starting to receive a lot of attention, given its potential for providing additional flexibility to the power system.

In 2016, approximately 0.8 GW of new non-pumped energy storage capacity became operational – mostly consisting of battery (electrochemical) storage but also some CSP thermal storage capacity – bringing the year-end total to an estimated 6.4 GW. This amount complements an estimated 150 GW of pumped storage capacity in operation worldwide. Most of the growth took place in battery (electro-chemical) storage, with innovations being driven largely by the EV industry. Storage systems increasingly are being integrated into large-scale utility projects, and are being used by homeowners to store electricity generated by rooftop solar PV systems.

The International Energy Agency’s Energy Technology Perspectives 2017 (ETP) report echoes REN21, finding just three out of 26 assessed technologies remain “on track” to meet climate objectives. The ETP’s Tracking Clean Energy Progress report says current government policies are not sufficient to achieve long-term global climate goals.

Investments in stronger and smarter infrastructure, including transmission capacity, storage capacity and demand side management technologies are necessary to build efficient, low-carbon, integrated, flexible and robust energy system.

“As costs decline, we will need a sustained focus on all energy technologies to reach long-term climate targets,” IEA says, “[and] speeding the rate of technological progress can help strengthen economies, boost energy security while also improving energy sustainability.”