Renewable Energy Production Surging, IEA Says

Renewable energy demand is expected to increase sharply until 2024, according to the International Energy Agency’s annual market analysis and forecast, a series of documents covering solar, offshore wind, nuclear and other sources released last week.

The share of renewables in global electricity generation has now reached 25 percent with industry growth expected to rebound by 12 percent this year after a lackluster 2018. Renewable power capacity is set to expand by 50 percent between 2019 and 2024, with solar PV leading the sector, an increase of 1,200 GW, equivalent to the entire installed power capacity of the United States today.

The number of solar rooftop systems on homes is set to more than double to some 100 million by 2024, according to the report, with the top markets on a per capita basis forecast to be Australia, Belgium, California, the Netherlands, and Austria.

Offshore wind is expected to contribute 4 percent of the increase, with its capacity forecast to triple by 2024, stimulated by competitive auctions in the European Union and expanding markets in China and the United States, according to the report

Bioenergy capacity is expected to grow as much as offshore wind, with the greatest expansions in China, India and the European Union. Hydropower growth is slowing, although it still accounts for one-tenth of the total increase in renewable capacity.

Apprehension is growing across the world over big dam construction, especially as China has become the world leader in construction. As Asia Sentinel has reported, dam construction on the Mekong River, for instance, threatens the ecology of the Mekong basin, the home to 100 million people.

Although nuclear power is the second-largest source of low-carbon electricity today, with 452 operating reactors providing 2700 TWh of electricity in 2018, or 10 percent of global electricity supply, its promise is fading, according to the IEA. The declining use of nuclear in advanced economies “could result in billions of tonnes of additional carbon emissions.” Some countries, the IEA says, have opted out of nuclear power in light of concerns about safety and other issues such as the storage of nuclear waste.

Many others, however, still see a role for nuclear in their energy transitions but are not doing enough to meet their goals. The nuclear fleet in advanced economies is averaging 35 years of age and many plants are nearing the end of their designed lifetimes. Given their age, plants are beginning to close, with 25 percent of existing nuclear capacity in advanced economies expected to be shut down by 2025.

In advanced economies, nuclear has long been the largest source of low-carbon electricity, providing 18 percent of supply in 2018. While 11.2 GW of new nuclear capacity was connected to power grids globally in 2018 – the highest total since 1990 – these additions were concentrated in China and Russia. There is considerable promise in new nuclear technology, however, the report predicts.

Wind and solar costs continue to decline rapidly, increasing their cost competitiveness vs. new coal and natural gas plants, with the rest of the world threatening to leave the United States behind in global competitiveness if the US administration’s current energy policy continues. President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked the industry, most recently eliminating a previously granted exemption from solar tariffs on October 6.

Nonetheless, industry officials say, the costs of solar energy panel production are falling so fast that the industry can probably absorb the additional costs. Despite the president’s antipathy to renewables, the US remains the second-largest growth market after China, with expansion driven by federal tax incentives put in place by the previous administration and by net-metering schemes in many states. California’s new mandate requiring PV panels on new homes and buildings of up to three storeys after 2020 is expected to make a major contribution to growth.

Wind and solar photovoltaic costs, in fact, are continuing to decline rapidly, according to the IEA report, improving their cost competitiveness versus new coal and natural gas plants. Distributed photovoltaic systems in homes, commercial buildings and industry have almost tripled since 2014, “transforming the way electricity is generated and consumed,” the report continues.

The IEA is a Paris-based intergovernmental organization under the OECD to promote the development of clean, affordable energy in the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil crisis. Although its urgent goal is to decarbonize energy production in a bid to cut back on the production of greenhouse gases, the report says, there is also an urgent need to transform “hard to abate” sectors such as transport, buildings and energy-intensive industries including iron and steel, cement and other industries.

Although solar photovoltaic production slowed in 2018, it has since rebounded, with distributed PV energy -- technologies that generate energy at or near where it will be used, such as solar panels and combined heat and power – growing as much as onshore wind, with the IEA forecast 14 percent higher for 2019 owing to improved policies and increasing competitiveness compared with coal and other fossil fuels.

Both China and India are moving into solar rapidly, with China’s distributed PV capacity leading the world. India is emerging as a new market and growth in the European Union is expected to resume after flagging in 2018.