For the first time, solar passed the 100 gigawatt (GW) threshold of capacity worldwide, with a third of that installed last year, and another third in 2011.
Solar plants generate as much electricity as about 16 mid-sized nuclear plants, according to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA).
"No one would have predicted even 10 years ago that we would see more than 100 gigawatts of photovoltaic capacity in the world by 2012," says EPIA President Winfred Hoffman.
Last year's growth was driven by China, US and Japan. Even though European markets lagged, Germany kept its title as the world's biggest market, installing 7.6 GW.
Europe is still the biggest market by far, led by Germany, with a total of 32GW and Italy (16GW).
"Even in tough economic times and despite growing regulatory uncertainty, we have nearly managed to repeat the record year of 2011," says Hoffmann. The continuing oversupply of solar panels will still make this year hard for solar manufacturers.
Wind Also Has Big Year
Wind energy now stands at 282 GW worldwide according to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC). The industry grew 20% last year, adding 45 GW.
"While China paused for breath, both the US and European markets had exceptionally strong years," says Steve Sawyer, secretary general of GWEC. "Asia still led global markets, but with North America a close second, and Europe not far behind."
China has 77 GW installed, followed by the US (60 GW), Germany (31 GW), Spain (23 GW) and the UK (8.5. GW).
Wind supplies 7% of the EU's electricity with 105.6 GW installed. Germany had a banner year, adding more than 2.4 GW, trailing only China (14 GW) and the US (13.2 GW).
While many EU countries are falling behind their renewable energy targets, Germany is seen as a safe haven for wind, which could grow by 43% in 2013.
And wind supplies 6% of US electricity.
Market consolidation was the cause for the relative slowdown in China, and the US market was driven by the imminent expiration of the production tax credit. Although the debt crisis continues to inhibit strong growth in Europe, its mandatory 2020 targets ensure some stability.
"The 2012 figures reflect orders made before the wave of political uncertainty that has swept across Europe since 2011, which is having a hugely negative impact on the wind energy sector," says Christian Kjaer, CEO of the European Wind Energy Association. "We expect this instability to be far more apparent in 2013 and 2014 installation levels."
Wind supplies 28% of Denmark's electricity and 40% comes from renewable energy.