For the second year in a row the United States and Europe added more energy capacity from renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric, than from conventional sources, like coal and gas, according to twin reports out Thursday from the United Nations Environment Programme and the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century.
In 2009 more than 50 percent of new power capacity in the US, and more than 60 percent in Europe, came from renewables.
The reports’ authors also predict that either this year or next growth in renewables will outstrip growth in conventional sources worldwide – a major milestone in the planet’s pivot away from fossil fuels.
Altogether nearly 80 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity was added worldwide in 2009, including 31 GW of hydro and 48 of non-hydro.
Hydroelectric power is still the number one source of renewable energy, but wind is catching up, with 38 GW installed last year, including 13.8 GW in China and 10 GW in the US. Solar power, meanwhile, has grown 60 percent worldwide every year since 2000, from .2 GW then to 21 GW at the end of 2009.
Investment in core clean energy (including new renewables, biofuels and energy efficiency) dipped 7 percent in 2009, to $162 billion. There was record investment in wind power, however, and if spending on solar hot water heaters and total installation costs for rooftop PV are included spending actually increased. The number of countries with policies encouraging renewable energy investment have roughly doubled from 2005, from 55 to more than 100.
Renewable energy still only accounts for 25 percent of power capacity worldwide, and only 18 percent of power generation (part of the reason for the discrepancy is that while a wind farm, for example, may be capable of generating 200 megawatts of electricity, the wind only blows at certain times and so actually generates less power than its capacity).
But it can sometimes seem as if fossil fuels are on the run, even if they remain the dominant source of electricity. Dozens of coal power projects have been cancelled recently in the US, according to SourceWatch. One of the dirtiest sources of power, coal is having trouble attracting financing because of concerns that environmental regulations could erase its cost advantage.
The sister reports, UNEP’s Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2010 and the REN21’s Renewables 2010 Global Status Report, were released by UN Under-Secretary-General Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director, and Mohamed El-Ashry, Chair of REN21. The UNEP report was prepared by London-based Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The REN21 report was produced by a team of authors in collaboration with a global network of research partners.