The Coming-of-Age of The Renewable Energy Industry

Over the next five years, global renewable energy generation will rise 40%, supplying about one-and-a-half times the current electricity production in the US.

Sounds enormous, doesn’t it? That figure includes big hydropower, however, which is currently leading this growth in some pretty unsustainable ways, like $93 billion to build 20 hydro plants by damming rivers in the Amazon, currently being partially blocked by protesters. And the mind-boggling Three Gorges Dam in China, the final portion of which recently came online after displacing 1.3 million people and submerging towns, cities and huge swaths of habitat. 

Still, the International Energy Agency (IEA) sees this as the coming-of-age of the renewable energy sector, and for the first time, the agency devoted an entire medium-term report on the subject, "in recognition of the dynamic and increasing role of renewable energy in the global power mix."

In April, IEA released the Tracking Clean Energy Progress report, warning that despite recent progress in deploying renewable energy, it must be sped up. And in June, IEA said global investments in renewable energy must double by 2020 – it’s hard to know how far off the mark the world is given the growth in supply they are now forecasting.

Hydropower will continue to lead, followed by onshore wind, bioenergy and solar PV, while offshore wind and concentrated solar grow quickly from current, fledgling status. Geothermal advances will continue where resources allow.  IEA also sees ocean energy making important steps towards commercialization.

"Renewable energy is expanding rapidly as technologies mature, with deployment transitioning from support-driven markets to new and potentially more competitive segments in many countries," says IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven.

Between 2011-2017, IEA expects renewable electricity generation to be 60% higher than the previous five years, and will increasingly shift from the OECD to new markets, with non-OECD countries accounting for two-thirds of this growth.

China will account for almost 40% of the 710 gigawatts (GW) of new global renewable energy capacity, with significant deployment in the US, India, Germany, Brazil, among other countries.

Hydropower continues to lead, its growth largely in developing countries. Other renewables will continue to quickly scale, with growth equally split between OECD and non-OECD countries.

The IEA sites the maturation of renewable energy technologies as being caused, in large part, because of supportive policy and market frameworks in OECD countries. Now it’s being driven by rapidly increasing electricity demand and energy security needs in emerging markets, and global warming and the distasters in Japan have led to serious review of energy policy in many countries.  Together, these create new deployment opportunities that are creating a virtuous cycle of improved global competition and cost reductions.

The report acknowledges the profound, uncertain macroeconomic outlook and that cost and availability of financing are key variables in how this plays out.   

Some parts of the renewable industry, such as solar panel manufacturing, will continue through a period of dramatic upheaval, with supply chains restructuring and shifting geographically while delivering cost reductions. Ultimately, such a consolidation should lead to a more mature and robust renewable sector.

Here’s the report:

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