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Who is installing renewable energy the fastest?

image credit: https://www.irena.org/publications/2021/March/Renewable-Capacity-Statistics-2021
Andrew Blakers's picture
Professor of Engineering Australian National university

Andrew Blakers is Professor of Engineering at the Australian National University. He founded the solar PV research group at ANU. In the 1980s and 1990s he was responsible for the design and...

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  • Apr 21, 2021
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Arguably, the fastest change in global energy systems in history is underway.

In 2020, new solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind capacity comprised 75% of global net new generation capacity according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. New PV and wind capacity was 10 times larger than net new hydro and coal capacity and 100 times larger than net new nuclear, carbon capture & storage, bioenergy, geothermal, solar thermal and ocean energy generation capacity. Extravagant deployment growth rates are required for other low-emission technologies to catch PV and wind.

The global per capita leaders in deployment of new renewable generation capacity in 2020 (Watts per person per year) were the Netherlands, Australia and Norway. They deployed new renewables per capita at 10 times the global rate and 3 times faster than China and the USA.

Australia has the most installed solar PV capacity per capita, ahead of Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and Belgium. Since the Australian solar resource in the populated southeast is 30-50% better than in those countries, Australia is by far the leading country in terms of per capita solar generation and also solar deployment speed. 

Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Germany and Norway are the global leaders in respect of installed per capita wind capacity (Watts per person). In 2020, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Australia led the per capita deployment speed (Watts per person per year).

The rapid rise to dominance of PV and wind in generation capacity construction has immense implications for greenhouse emissions trajectories through displacement of fossil fuels (which cause three quarters of global emissions).

PV and wind can readily decarbonize electricity systems. Electrification of most land transport (via electric vehicles) and heating (via electric heat pumps and electric furnaces) is relatively straightforward using existing widely-deployed technology. Thus, deep (~70%) emissions reductions can be made quickly, which buys time to decarbonize difficult sectors such as agriculture, the chemical industry and aviation.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 21, 2021

Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Germany and Norway are the global leaders in respect of installed per capita wind capacity (Watts per person). In 2020, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Australia led the per capita deployment speed (Watts per person per year).

Are these leaders simply benefitting from better natural resources (such as the available wind resources, hydro capabilities, solar irradiance,etc.)? Do nations that don't have the obvious renewable geographies in front of them stand to learn from these countries, or are there different approaches needed by them? 

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Apr 21, 2021

Northern Europe has good wind but poor sun. However, these countries are more committed than most other countries to mitigating climate change.

Most countries have reasonably good solar and on-offshore wind.

Australia has good wind and sun, similar to the USA. Australia is #1 for coal exports and #2 for LNG exports, and the Federal Government bends over backwards to help coal and LNG. However, the compelling economics of solar & wind is running right over the top of Federal Government policies and preferences.

In any event, wind and solar are now so cheap that they undercut new-build and even existing coal & gas generation in most countries - which is why coal, nuclear, gas are falling so far behind in terms of net ew deployment.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Apr 27, 2021

You may be interested in this, if you have not yet seen it. It was published in 2012. A few excerpts:

In 2000, IEA projected that there would be 30 gigawatts of wind power worldwide by 2010, but the estimate was off by a factor of 7. Wind power produced 200 gigawatts in 2010, an investment of approximately $400 billion.

In 2000, IEA estimated that China would have 2 gigawatts of wind power installed by 2010. China reached 45 gigawatts by the end of 2010. The IEA projected that China wind power in 2020 would be 3.7 gigawatts, but most projections now exceed 150 gigawatts, or 40 times more.

In 2002, a top industry analyst predicted an additional 1 gigawatt (solar) annual market by 2010. The annual market in 2010 was 17 times that at 17 gigawatts.

What do cell phones, energy efficiency, and renewable energy have in common? One, they are dynamic areas of technology development and market competition, which makes straight-line projections pretty useless. And two, they are distributed, with millions of loosely networked people and organizations working on them in parallel. Distributed, human-scale technologies come in small increments. They replicate quickly, so there’s more variation and competitive selection, and thus more evolution.

Nuclear power, in contrast, comes in gigantic increments only (at least for now). There’s a limited number of people doing the R&D, a limited number of entities capable of building or financing the power plants. It’s a little easier to know the potential.

When it comes to complex, parallel, loosely linked networks, the dynamics are more fluid and nonlinear changes more likely. They’re harder to quantify and predict. And so we consistently underestimate them. Something to keep in mind when pondering what today’s projections are going to look like in 2020.

Paul Krugman referred to the above in an editorial today.  He concludes:

So we couldn’t have counted on renewable energy getting so cheap so fast. But it did. Claims by conservatives that policies to reduce emissions would kill the economy never made much sense, but anyone making those claims now is living in a time warp, ignoring the way the energy landscape has changed.

Makes me want to stick around to see what 2030 brings.  

Christopher Neely's picture
Christopher Neely on Apr 21, 2021

So this comes down to a mostly political issue rather than a financial or natural resources one. Of course, some of these smaller European nations probably see renewables as a path to energy independence, whereas in the U.S. drilling for more oil and natural gas was our way of seeking energy independence, so our adoption of renewables was not as urgent. 

I also fairly shocked to see how heavily Norway depends on wind power. 

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Apr 22, 2021

Politics is important of course, but the ever-falling price of solar & wind is the key reason why countries like UK and USA are committing to deep cuts by 2030-35, because is doesn't cost much (if anything) to do so.

Norway has a lot of hydro and wind and poor sunshine in winter. So naturally they rely on hydro and wind. It also has vast offshore fossil fuel resources that will have to be left in the ground - just like Australia and the USA.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 22, 2021

I'd say further-- you can't separate the issue of politics and costs. Falling renewable costs make it easier for more politicians to back it as a common sense solution, while in areas where the cost difference isn't dramatic you're going to be less likely to see politicians willing to plant the renewable flag

Christopher Neely's picture
Christopher Neely on Apr 22, 2021

This is an excellent point and, really, a bit profound in its simplicity. Political arguments around change often do come down to costs. As costs come down, the arguments then shift to special interests, which I don't think have as much power when the common-sense solution becomes the cheaper and more environmentally sustainable solution. 

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Apr 23, 2021

Norway is not dependent on wind power for domestic use.  Norway has for many years produced more than 90% of its own power with small scale hydro.  But now they are building infrastructure to more fully connect their grid to Europe and the UK.  This will allow further expansion of onshore wind and rapid build-out of offshore wind, both fixed and floating.  The aspiration seems to be that Norway becomes something of a "battery" for Europe.  It also looks the plan will include green hydrogen  to some degree.

Pulikkal Ashokan's picture
Pulikkal Ashokan on Apr 22, 2021

My view is to look for a sudden shift that instead of depending on political resolutions and prolonged
implementation time, efforts are to be made to popularize all the activities, and help the general public to start own. Of course support from the Governments will speed up.
Being a Researcher, I have made many experiments in my research in energy, and finally i have completed my research that each and every one can make own energy, with lesser cost, with highly affordable. I have made a small working models too.
Such activities will speed up the growth of individuals, companies, etc. and also the Governments.
The major gain here will be , a good % of overhead expenses and money wasting can be stopped and diver the fund only to the aimed result. I am a cost controller, and from my experiments for energy methods, I experienced this.
Ashokan
power.ashoka@gmail.com

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Apr 22, 2021

"The global per capita leaders in deployment of new renewable generation capacity in 2020 (Watts per person per year) were the Netherlands, Australia and Norway."

Ok, so wealthy countries are embracing renewables.  That won't fix our global emissions problem or local air pollution problems. 

It turns out that cheap PV and wind have high external costs.  That means that using them makes cheap electricity some of the time, but a more expensive grid all of the time.  Developing countries know this, and are only putting in token PV systems while their electricity heavy lifting is done by coal and a bit of hydro.

If we put as much national focus on cost-reducing nuclear (which uses an order of magnitude less concrete and steel as renewables, per unit energy delivered) as we have with renewables, we'd have solutions that developing nations (which host the vast majority of global demand growth) could embrace.

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Apr 22, 2021

Three quarters of the global population lives in the sunbelt (+/- 35 deg of latitude) where there is high and consistent solar availability and no cold winters. These countries are likely to bypass a fossil fuel era and go straight to PV & wind as they develop and industrialize, because they are so cheap.

Cheap PV and wind also have cheap off-the-shelf balancing solutions: https://energycentral.com/c/pip/100-renewables-easier-and-cheaper-most-p...

In 2020 there was 0.6 GW of net new nuclear according to the world nuclear association. New PV & wind was 230 GW. Nuclear construction is a cottage industry. PV & wind produce minimal environmental impact, have no weapons spinoffs, cannot have significant accidents, are completely recyclable and utilize an unlimited resource that will last for billions of years. What's not to like?

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 22, 2021

Three quarters of the global population lives in the sunbelt (+/- 35 deg of latitude) where there is high and consistent solar availability and no cold winters. 

This is a great data point-- do you have a citation for this? I'd love to keep it handy!

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Apr 23, 2021

"Pathway to 100% Renewable Electricity," IEEE Journal of Photovoltaics, https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8836526

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Apr 23, 2021

You're certainly correct that PV is a poor choice at high latitudes, where winter sun is lacking.  But that's not the only problem for PV.

Night-time hurts PV also, and the resulting need for batteries drives up cost, and creates more challenges with environmentally friendly production and disposal of the equipment. (And enforcement of environmental regulations is always difficult in developing nations.)

The dilute nature of solar energy means that PV systems will always result in a large environmental footprint for populations that rely on them.

And clouds are a severe hindrance because they result in PV systems being unreliable.  Clouds are a feature anywhere growing crops is viable; all large historical human settlements are located near food sources (California is an anomaly caused by the gold rush and fledgling film industry which depended on natural lighting).  Batteries may help with nightly outages that last for hours, mostly while demand is low, but batteries can't smooth out weather variations, which can last days.

Because of the inherent unreliability, PV and windpower systems will always be dependent on firm backup generation.  The offered green hydrogen solution is not suitable, since green hydrogen must cost more than the electricity from which it is made, whereas fossil fuel costs less than the electricity it is used to produce.

The need for a separate parallel fossil fuel system, and the fact that fossil fuel has fallen in cost over time, mean that PV and windpower are not really leading us away from fossil fuel, but are simply shifting the balance somewhat.

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Apr 23, 2021

These objections have long been laid to rest by facts on the ground.

Firm backup for variable PV and wind is provided by a combination of strong interstate transmission (to smooth out local weather & demand); demand management; and storage (batteries, pumped hydro).

Australia's National Electricity Market and the state of South Australia have reached 30% and 70% renewables respectively, and are tracking to 45% and 100% in 2024. The current (2021) and Market Futures (2024) price in both places is US$35/MWh, which includes the cost of balancing.

Thousands and millions of wind and solar generators are statistically more reliable than a few large generators. Night time and weather can be predicted accurately and therefore accommodated - recall that weather systems take several days to sweep across a country like Australia or the USA.

Australia and the USA have vast off-river pumped hydro storage; look at our global atlas of 616,000 sites at http://re100.eng.anu.edu.au/global/index.php

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Apr 24, 2021

Wow, so many misleading claims.

The Australian government says in 2019, Australian electricity was 79% from coal and gas (56% coal), and just 21% renewables.  That is very dirty electricity by US standards (but it does offer easy balancing for variable sources).  The fact that (sparsely populated) Tasmania's power is majority hydro does not prove "renewables" are scalable and affordable, as hydro is the most limited and easily accommodated variable renewable.

You have chosen a mis-leading definition for electricity reliability, by neglecting to include the reliability of the wind (which is appallingly bad), combined with the turbine reliability, the result is still is appallingly bad.

For pumped hydro, perhaps you meant to say Australia has vast potential?  Because currently, there are only three facilities in operation (Talbingo, Shoalhaven, and Wivenhoe), totaling about 1.6 GW  source.

The Australian government thinks new pumped hydro will cost $1.8/W for 14 hours (dwarfing the cost of PV), and involve considerable evaporation loss of fresh water (pumping salt-water would risk contamination of drinking water due to leaks).  That's a huge blemish on the promise that PV will be cheap and use hardly any water.

Again, I'm not saying it can't be made to work, surely it can (at least 60% average penetration), but only in wealthy desert countries.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 25, 2021

Thanks Nathan. So many misleading claims, so little time.

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Apr 26, 2021

Events are moving rapidly. In the National Electricity Market (covering 80% of demand) renewables (6-month moving average) are now at 30%, coal at 65% and gas at 5%. Renewables are tracking towards 50% in 2025. https://opennem.org.au/energy/nem/?range=7d&interval=30m

South Australia reached 70% over the summer and is tracking towards 100% PV & wind in 2024.

Two new pumped hydro systems are under construction (Snowy 2.0 & Kidston) (combined 2.3GW, 350 GWh) with another dozen under serious consideration. Several GW of utility batteries are also being deployed.

Off-river pumped hydro uses negligible land and water. A 1GW system with 24 hours of storage and head of 600 m requires 200 Hectares. See https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2516-1083/abeb5b

The Australian government source you quote for pumped hydro costs is actually me. The numbers quoted are AUD, not USD. They are perfectly acceptable, adding only about 10% to the cost of a 100% renewable electricity system (new transmission & curtailment also each add 10%). Total cost of electricity in a fully reliable Australian 100% renewable electricity system is about A$75/MWh (US$55/MWh): http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217309568

 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 25, 2021

"Firm backup for variable PV and wind is provided by a combination of strong interstate transmission (to smooth out local weather & demand); demand management; and storage (batteries, pumped hydro)."

Andrew, certainly if these are "facts on the ground" you must have at least one example of a grid powered by the combination you describe.
You don't? I didn't think so. That's because it isn't a fact on the ground, or in the air, or anywhere else. Your combination is a future fantasy, which you carelessly translate to present tense lacking any evidence it will ever be possible - much less, practical.

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Apr 26, 2021

Plenty of houses in moderate latitudes rely 100% on PV/wind/battery.

Plenty of small regions rely on PV/wind/battery/diesel for 100% of their electricity, where the diesel fraction is below 30%.

No physically isolated sustantial country or province has got to 80-100% PV/wind yet. But Australia is well on track and no significant technical or economic obstacles are being encountered (there are plenty of political obstacles).

It is the role of foresighted engineers to perceive and report upon the trends.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Apr 23, 2021

Per capita figures can be a bit misleading.  The population of Norway is only 5.2 million.  Many countries have installed total renewables many times that of Norway.  Norway is a relative newcomer to wind.

Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Apr 23, 2021

Yes, but a small number of wind turbines in a large electricity system is diluted and does not uncover the benefits and costs of renewable-dominated systems (to act as a global pathfinder).

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Apr 27, 2021

True enough.  I see your point.

Kumar Mukund's picture
Kumar Mukund on Apr 28, 2021

Thanks for sharing the information!

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