Developing countries now lead in clean energy investment

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, March 25, 2016

For the first time, developing countries invested more in renewable energy capacity in 2015 than their wealthier counterparts, helping drive global spending on clean energy generation to $266 billion, according to data released this morning by the United Nations Environment Programme.

In its 10th annual report on global renewable energy investment, UNEP and partners the Frankfurt School and Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that global spending on renewable energy rose 18 percent in emerging countries, to $156 billion, while dropping 8 percent in developed nations.

“Access to clean, modern energy is of enormous value for all societies, but especially so in regions where reliable energy can offer profound improvements in quality of life, economic development and environmental sustainability,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a statement.

“Continued and increased investment in renewables is not only good for people and planet, but will be a key element in achieving international targets on climate change and sustainable development,” he added.

In another major finding, UNEP found that global investment in renewables more than doubled spending on fossil fuel power sources, which was estimated at $130 billion. When factoring for spending on early-stage technology and research and development, renewable energy investment soared to $286 billion, setting a record.

The United States saw renewable energy spending increase 19 percent to $44.1 billion, according to the report.

In a separate report yesterday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration noted that wind energy accounted for 40 percent of all new power added to the U.S. grid in 2015, compared with 30 percent for natural gas and 26 percent for solar. Texas led the nation in new wind energy installations, while California remained the No. 1 U.S. solar market.

According to UNEP, solar and wind together accounted for record 118 gigawatts of global capacity additions, a trend “helped by further falls in generating costs per megawatt-hour, particularly in solar photovoltaics.” Other technologies, such as solar thermal, biomass, waste-to-power, geothermal and small hydro, saw more modest gains.

While renewable energy generation grew worldwide, the new findings reflect China’s emergence as the world’s No. 1 renewable energy market, with nearly $103 billion in investment during 2015, a 17 percent increase over 2014 and more than one-third of all spending worldwide. India also saw spending rise 22 percent year over year to $10.2 billion, according to UNEP.

Three of the fastest-growing renewable energy sectors were in Africa and Latin America. South Africa invested $4.5 billion, a 329 percent increase from 2014; Mexico saw spending rise 105 percent to $4 billion; and Chile invested $3.4 billion, a 151 percent increase from the previous year. Morocco, Turkey and Uruguay also for the first time invested more than $1 billion in clean energy.

Among the laggards, according to UNEP, were onetime clean energy leaders in Europe. Collective investment in renewables by members of the European Union fell 21 percent to $48.8 billion, its lowest figure in nine years, despite significant increases in spending on offshore wind power, UNEP said.

Clean energy spending in Japan, which has seen a significant increase in solar power capacity over the past few years, was roughly the same as in 2014, at $36.2 billion.

Michael Liebreich, chairman of the advisory board at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, noted that renewable energy growth continued at a torrid pace despite falling prices for oil, gas and coal. For poor countries in particular, Liebreich said many have been helped “by sharply reduced costs and by the benefits of local power production over reliance on imported commodities.”

In addition to new generation capacity, UNEP noted that battery storage also saw significant growth in 2015 “as an adjunct to solar and wind projects and to small-scale PV systems.” Last year, about 250 megawatts of utility-scale storage was installed worldwide, up from 160 MW in 2014, the report found.