Last week, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released its 2017 statistics on renewable energy technologies. Should we be excited about a 60-page long document filled with numbers?! Ooooh yes, even if you are not a nerd. IRENA meticulously listed all renewable energy generation plants in the world, categorized them according to technology, and kept track of their total installed capacity over the last decade. The statistics show clearer than ever that renewable electricity generation is growing worldwide. Have a look at the graphs I made for you below.
Since 2007, the total installed capacity of all renewable generation technologies combined has doubled. Let me remind you that in 2008 and 2009, some feared that the economic crisis would put a damper on the growth. This has not been the case. On the one hand, it is in those years that support schemes for renewables peaked in Europe. After 2010, these schemes were built off, but by the time solar and wind had seen a dramatic decrease in cost. In addition, the Chinese had realized the only way to solve their persistent smog issues is replacing their coal power production by cleaner alternatives, leading to massive investment in wind and solar technologies. China is now the biggest investor worldwide in renewable energy solutions.
For those of my readers who are not so familiar with energy generation technologies and are wondering what that GW at the vertical axis on the graphs below stands for, it’s GigaWatt, a common unit of electric power and equal to 1000 MegaWatts. GigaWatts and MegaWatts are used to express the amount of instantaneous electric power a power plant can deliver. To put the numbers below in perspective, the combustion engine in your car has a power output of about 0.1 MW or 0.0001 GW. A typical nuclear reactor has a power output of 1000 MW, or 1 GW.
Now that issue is off the table, you might still be wondering if 2100 GW is really that much renewable production capacity. Good question! The worldwide installed capacity of all electricity generation, including nuclear, coal and gas plants, is around 6300 GW. Hence, renewables make up for about one-third. Although this might not seem too impressive (we have to slash carbon emissions right now, no?), have a closer look at the two graphs below. Although wind and solar are still pretty small in the global picture, they are growing exponentially. Renewables are on the rise! This proves that the energy mix will look quite different in a couple of years.
There is one important remark some renewable energy activists sometimes ‘forget’ to mention. The MW or GW capacity of an electricity generation plant normally expresses the plant’s maximum power output, i.e. when the plant is running the hardest it can. And while this was normally always the case for conventional non-renewable sources like a coal or nuclear plant, it is certainly not the case for renewable technologies like wind and solar. In the end, the wind is not always blowing nor is the sun always shining (very hard). So… in the end 1 GW of nuclear capacity or 1 GW of wind capacity will not translate in the same amount of energy generated. Don’t panic, I totally understand if you start getting confused a bit! What you need to remember is that renewable technologies are good for one-third of the global power capacity, but one-fourth of the final generated energy.
Note that following technologies are listed as renewables by IRENA: hydropower, marine power (tidal and wave), on- and offshore wind, solar photovoltaics, solar CSP, geothermal, solid biofuels & biowaste, liquid biofuels, and biogas
For a more detailed breakdown, I recommend you to dive into the statistics yourself: IRENA 2017 statistics