More Renewable Energy for Less: Capacity Grew in 2016 as Costs Fell

New report details record levels of capacity generated by clean energy with decreasing costs of development worldwide.

A solar photovoltaic power project in Yantai, Shandong Province of China.
A solar photovoltaic project in Yantai, Shandong Province of China. Global renewable energy capacity increased by record levels in 2016. Credit: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

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The world added record levels of renewable energy capacity in 2016 while spending less on clean energy development, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Program and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Global renewable energy capacity, not including large-scale hydropower, increased by 9 percent in 2016 as spending on clean energy sources such as wind and solar decreased by 23 percent from the year before, according to the report published on Thursday.

“Ever-cheaper clean tech provides a real opportunity for investors to get more for less,” Erik Solheim, executive director of the UN program said in a statement. “This is exactly the kind of situation, where the needs of profit and people meet, that will drive the shift to a better world for all.”

New capacity from renewable energy sources made up 55 percent of all new power sources worldwide as the investment in renewable energy capacity was roughly double that of new fossil fuel power generation capacity. (However, because renewable plants typically run more intermittently, the comparisons are not exact.)

“It’s a whole new world,” said Michael Liebreich, Bloomberg New Energy Finance advisory board chairman. “Instead of having to subsidize renewables, now authorities may have to subsidize natural gas plants to help them provide grid reliability.”

Renewable energy reaches record levels in 2016

The switch to renewables was one of the main reasons for greenhouse gas emissions staying nearly flat in 2016, for the third year in a row, even though output in the global economy rose by 3.1 percent, the report stated.

While investments in renewables were down in 2016, funding for offshore wind in Europe and China, where the country invested $4.1 billion in the clean energy source, increased significantly. The price of wind energy as well as solar power has fallen precipitously in recent years.

More aggressive investments are needed in renewable energy, however, to meet sustainable development goals set by the United Nations in September 2015. Those seek to end poverty, improve health and education and combat climate change and include ambitious clean energy targets that would double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.

The share of renewable energy in global energy consumption, including energy used for heating and transportation, climbed to 18.3 percent in 2014. It continued the slight acceleration in renewable energy consumption since 2010, according to a report by the World Bank and the International Energy Agency released Tuesday. The rate of tthe increase in renewable energy, however, is “nowhere near fast enough” to double renewables’ share to 36 percent by 2030, the Global Tracking Framework report concluded.

“This year’s Global Tracking Framework is a wake-up call for greater effort on a number of fronts,” Riccardo Puliti, senior director and head of Energy and Extractives at the World Bank said in a statement. “There needs to be increased financing, bolder policy commitments, and a willingness to embrace new technologies on a wider scale.”