published on 13 September 2017 in energy

Energy and renewable sources: where are we?

The Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (Ren21) periodically publishes figures and statistics on the market, industry, investments and policies regarding renewable sources in the world. These figures are illustrated and analysed in the “Renewables 2017 Global Status Report”, the twelfth edition of which has been published this year. This issue of the report therefore allows us to get an idea of the current state of renewable sources in the world, a sector that is constantly evolving and changing.
Analysing the figures in the Report related to 2016, it can be seen that the past few years have been marked by record growth of renewable sources, in particular solar and wind power. The most significant increase in renewable energy was in the electricity sector. During last year, in fact, installed power increased as never before, adding approximately 161 GW more and bringing the world total to 2,017 GW, equivalent to an increase of 9% over 2015. According to the report, renewable sources, which at the end of 2016 accounted for 30% of world electric power generation capacity, were able to cover 24.5% of the demand for electricity, and hydropower on its own providing 16.6% of renewable energy (see image below). The Countries with the highest installed renewable power at the end of 2016 were China, the United States, Brazil, Germany and Canada.

Estimated shares of renewable energy in world electricity production, year 2016. Source: REN21, “Renewables 2017 Global Status Report”, modified by eniscuola editorial staff.

With regard to building heating and cooling, in 2016 renewable sources covered around 25% of total consumption of energy in this sector. In particular, traditional biomass accounted for 2/3 of renewable sources (they are one of the main sources of energy in developing countries), the remaining third, on the contrary, was covered by modern renewable sources. Renewable energy is also used for cooling, a rapidly growing sector that offers great potential but is not yet used extensively. Moreover, in 2016, especially in Europe, there was an increase in integration of renewable sources into district heating and cooling systems and the use of hybrid systems for production of domestic hot water. In conclusion, although there is a huge potential for renewable energy, and technological innovations are available in the building heating/cooling sector, use of renewable sources is still marginal in this sector.
In the transport sector too, use of renewable sources is limited to a small share, prevalently represented by liquid biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), which account for 4% of consumption. Oil is, in fact, the predominant source, covering 93% of the final consumption of energy in the transport sector. Alongside liquid biofuels, are gaseous biofuels, including biomethane, the use of which is however still limited due to a number of barriers that prevent penetration of biogas in the transport sector, including the lack of regulations on the subject of access to the natural gas distribution network, lack of infrastructures widespread throughout the territory, costs that remain relatively high. Production of biogas for transport is, for the most part, concentrated in Europe and the United States.
Renewable sources, lastly, are used to supply electricity to trains, underground railways, trams and two and four-wheel electric vehicles by using batteries to store the renewable energy or by using hydrogen obtained from renewable sources. Obstacles to electrification of the transport sector included the relatively high costs required to buy electric vehicles, the limited operating range of batteries and the lack of infrastructures to recharge the batteries. In  most developing countries, moreover, the lack of a robust supply of electric power reduces the attractiveness of using electricity for transport.
Following the historical Paris agreement on climate in December 2015 (COP21), the international community focussed its attention on decarbonisation of the transport sector, although only 22 of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC, that is commitments for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions presented voluntarily before the beginning of COP21) refer specifically to renewable energy in the transport sector and only two (Niue and New Zealand) connect electric vehicles to renewable energy.
During 2016, some governments, mostly in Europe, began studying medium and long-term strategies to decarbonise the sector, often involving long-term structural changes; many have also considered or developed strategies to connect the transport and electricity sectors more closely. For example, the German climate action plan, developed in 2016, aims to reduce emissions in the sector by 40 to 42% by the year 2030, with the more long-term aim of totally decarbonising the sector. However, a large part of international discussions on decarbonisation has concerned the electrification of transport, with little attention dedicated to guaranteeing a supply of renewable electric power.

Renewable successes
The evolution of renewable energies over the past ten years has exceeded all expectations, in fact, the installed global capacity and energy production have increased considerably and a tendency towards an increase in investments and policies in favour of renewable energy has been observed since the beginning of this century. The energy and economic crises of the past few years and the growing attention and commitment towards mitigation of climate changes have driven this rapid development, surpassing all the growth forecasts. Moreover, some countries that have been pioneers in the renewables sector, such as Germany, Denmark, Spain and the United States, have laid the foundations for the first technological progresses, giving rise to an exponential increase in the market for renewable sources.
Technological progress and rapid development of renewable energy, especially in the electric power sector, have amply demonstrated their potential. Today, renewable technologies are seen not only as a means for improving energy security and mitigation and adaptation to climate change, but are also increasingly viewed as an investment that can bring direct and indirect economic advantages, for example, that of reducing dependency on importation of traditional fossil sources. They also contribute to improving air quality at local level, favouring access to energy in rural areas and creating new jobs.
The sector in which the largest growth has been seen is electricity generation.
Hydropower is confirmed as the prime renewable technology in terms of useful installed power. During the course of 2016, 25 new GW were installed, with a total capacity at year end of 1,096 GW. China, Brazil, the United States, Canada, Russia and India, who together cover 60% of global hydropower, were confirmed as the top countries for installed capacity.
With regard to photovoltaic power, 75 GW were installed in 2016, thereby reaching 303 GW of power worldwide. While the high growth of solar power over the past ten years has been led by Europe (70% of photovoltaic systems are in Europa), there has recently been a rapid increase in the photovoltaic market in China. Suffice it to say that installed photovoltaic power in China has increased from 0.3 GW in 2009 to 73.4 GW in 2016 and that 46% of all new installed power during 2016 is due to that country.
Despite these figures, growth to date reflects only a small part of the enormous potential of the photovoltaic market: numerous countries in Africa, the Middle East, South-East Asia and Latin America have not yet begun to use the high potential that they have at their disposal.
The growth of wind power, the installed power of which reached a total of 487 GW, with 55 new GW installed in 2016, is equally worth noting. In fact, 2016 was another favourable year for the wind power market, in that the reduction of costs and perfecting of existing technologies made wind power a competitive source of energy in an increasingly large number of markets. For the eighth consecutive year, Asia was confirmed as the largest market, accounting for around half of the capacity installed during the year, followed by Europe and North America. Seventy-five percent of world wind power is located in only 10 countries: China, the United States, Germany, India, Spain, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Brazil and Italy.
Bioenergies (modern and traditional) are still the renewable source that contributes most to covering primary energy consumption in the world. However, this level has remained almost constant since 2005 at 10.5%, despite the fact that there has been an increase of 21% in the global energy demand over the past 10 years. In developing countries, traditional forms of biomass are still widely used: they are firewood, carbon, agricultural residues and dung, burnt in open fires, furnaces and cooking ovens. As far as modern biomass is concerned, solid forms are used mainly for heating and production of electricity, while liquid biofuels are used in the transport sector.
The growth of geothermal energy, on the contrary, has been more limited, and in 2016 it increased by only 0.4 GW, reaching a level of 13.5 GW of global installed capacity.

What about the future?
Renewable energy is a key factor for social, political and economic growth, since it provides important benefits, such as greater access to energy, improved health, social equality and creation of jobs. Renewables, additionally, make it possible to increase the energy security of countries with little or no domestic availability of fossil fuels, reducing dependency on importation of traditional energy sources. Lastly, they help to curb emissions of greenhouse gases produced by the energy sector.
Considering the above and in order to attain the goal of doubling the share of renewable energy by 2030, as required by the “Sustainable Energy for all” programme (http://www.se4all.org/) promoted by the United Nations Secretary General, all forms of modern renewable sources need to be at least tripled. Even more importantly, we need to change the business-as-usual approach to the supply of energy and ensure that the issues regarding supply and demand of energy are dealt with simultaneously.

by Benedetta Palazzo


With the sponsorship of the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research
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