Solar power surged ahead in 2011

Posted: 12 June 2012

Solar generation surged past wind power to become the renewable energy technology of choice for global users and investors in 2011.

Taken together, rooftop photovoltaic (PV) installations and large-scale concentrating solar thermal (CSP) power, along with other smaller PV installations, helped investment in solar power jump by over 50 per cent.

Solar PV array in China
Solar PV arrays in China now attract generous subsidies. Photo: Steve Willcox

Solar attracted nearly twice as much investment as wind, driving the renewable energy sector to yet another record-breaking year, albeit one beset with challenges for the industry, according to two new reports on renewable energy trends issued today by the UN Environment Programme and the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century.

UNEP’s report on Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2012 shows that despite increasingly tough competition, total investment in renewable power and fuels last year increased by 17 per cent to a record $257 billion, a six-fold increase on the 2004 figure and 94 per cent higher than the total in 2007, the year before the world financial crisis.

New markets 

Although last year's increase was significantly smaller than the 37 per cent growth in 2010, it was achieved at a time of rapidly falling prices for renewable energy equipment and severe pressure on fiscal budgets in the developed world.

The REN21 Renewables 2012 Global Status Report, the most frequently referenced report on renewable energy developments, notes that during 2011 renewables continued to grow strongly in all sectors - power, heating and cooling and transport. Renewable sources have grown to supply 16.7 per cent of global energy consumption. Of that, the share provided by traditional biomass has declined slightly while the share sourced from modern renewable technologies has risen.

Wind farm, Maharashtra
Wind farm, Maharashtra. Photo © Down to Earth

In 2011, renewable energy technologies continued to expand into new markets: around 50 countries installed wind power capacity, and solar PV capacity moved rapidly into new regions and countries. Solar hot water collectors are used by more than 200 million households as well as in many public and commercial buildings worldwide.

Highlights of the reports included:

  • Total investment in solar power jumped 52 per cent to $147 billion and featured booming rooftop photovoltaic (PV) installations in Italy and Germany, the rapid spread of small-scale PV to other countries from China to the UK and big investments in large-scale concentrating solar thermal (CSP) power projects in Spain and the US.
  • The United States surged back almost to the top of the renewables investment rankings, with a 57 per cent leap to $51 billion, as developers rushed to cash in on three significant incentive programmes before they expired during 2011 and 2012. After leading the world for two years, China saw its lead over the US shrink to just $1 billion in 2011, as it recorded renewable energy investment of $52 billion, up 17 per cent.
  • India's National Solar Mission helped to spur an impressive 62 per cent increase to $12 billion, the fastest investment expansion of any large renewables market in the world. In Brazil, there was an 8 per cent increase to $7 billion.
  • Competitive challenges intensified sharply, leading to sharp drops in prices, especially in the solar market -- a boon to buyers but not to manufacturers, a number of whom went out of business or were forced to restructure.
  • Renewable power, excluding large hydro-electric, accounted for 44 per cent of all new generating capacity added worldwide in 2011 (up from 34 per cent in 2010). Gross investment in fossil-fuel capacity in 2011 was $302 billion, compared to $237 billion for that in renewable energy capacity excluding large hydro.
  • The top seven countries for renewable electricity capacity, excluding large hydro, were China, the United States, Germany, Spain, Italy, India and Japan. They accounted for about 70 per cent of total non-hydro renewable capacity worldwide. The ranking among these countries was quite different for non-hydro capacity on a per person basis: Germany, Spain, Italy, the US, Japan, China and India. By region, the EU was home to nearly 37 per cent of global non-hydro renewable capacity at the end of 2011, China, India and Brazil accounted for roughly one quarter.
  • Renewable technologies are expanding into new markets. In 2011, around 50 countries installed wind capacity; solar PV capacity is rapidly moving into new regions and countries; interest in geothermal power has taken hold in East Africa's Rift Valley and elsewhere; interest in solar heating and cooling is on the rise in countries around the world; and the use of modern biomass for energy purposes is expanding in all regions of the globe.

      Energy targets 

  • In the power sector, renewables accounted for almost half of the estimated 208 gigawatts (GW) of electric capacity added globally during the year. Wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) accounted for almost 40 per cent and 30 per cent respectively, followed by hydropower (nearly 25 per cent). By the end of 2011, total renewable power capacity worldwide exceeded 1,360 GW, up 8 per cent over 2010. Renewables comprised more than 25 per cent of total global power-generating capacity.
  • At least 118 countries, more than half of which are developing countries, had renewable energy targets in place by early 2012, up from 96 one year before, although some slackening of policy support was seen in developed countries. This weakening reflected austerity pressures, particularly in Europe, and legislative deadlock in the US Congress.
  • Despite all the additional investments, share prices in the renewable energy sector had a dismal 2011 in the face of overcapacity in the solar and wind manufacturing chains and investor unease about the direction of support policies in both Europe and North America.

Commenting on the reports, Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, said: "It is essential to continue government policies that support and nurture the sector's growth, and to de-escalate damaging trade disputes. Otherwise," he warned, "the low-carbon transition could weaken just at the point when exciting cost reductions are starting to transform the economics."

UNEP’s Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2012 is the fifth edition of the UNEP report, based on data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and has become the standard reference for global clean energy investment figures.