New solar projects worldwide leave fossil fuels in the dust

China is way out in front of the United States in starting new solar energy projects.

Donald Trump and Republican energy officials might think they’re talking a good game with proposed boosts in offshore drilling, coal industry jobs, and tariffs on solar panels from China. But worldwide, the new energy construction projects and investment emphasis are concentrated in solar. And it’s a trend where China is far outpacing the United States.

The world installed 98 gigawatts of new solar power projects in 2017, more than the additions of coal, gas, and nuclear plants combined, according to a new report about global trends in renewable energy investment. The report is a joint effort of the United Nations Environment Programme, the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management in Germany, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The report reflects not only a strong emphasis on solar energy but also the amount of investment money going into those projects, and where that money is coming from.

Trump has regurgitated tweets with threats about tariffs for weeks, renewing fears of a trade war with China. But as Think Progress put it, “We’re fighting the wrong trade battle with China. The future is clean energy.”

So even as Trump focuses on backward-looking energy sources like coal and backward-looking trade policies such as these latest tariff wars, the forward-looking Chinese have seized the initiative on the core job-creating industries of the future.

There are estimates that renewable energy options such as wind and solar could produce four times as many ongoing jobs as would a fossil fuel investment such as a natural gas power plant. As the report makes clear, the global energy map is changing, and where investors are putting their money is changing along with it — especially when it comes to the developing world.

Some key findings from the UN report:

  • Renewables accounted for a record 157 gigawatts of renewable power in 2017, up from 143 gigawatts in 2016. New fossil fuel capacity accounted for only 70 gigawatts last year. Solar alone accounted for 38 percent of the net new power capacity.
  • By far, the leading location for renewable energy investment in 2017 was China, which accounted for $126.6 billion in global total investment, the highest figure ever. Solar investment alone in China was $86.5 billion. In contrast, U.S. investment in all renewables fell by 6 percent from 2016 and totaled only $40.5 billion.
  • Costs for solar energy continue to fall. The benchmark cost of electricity for a photovoltaic panel project dropped to $86 per megawatt-hour, down 15 percent from a year earlier and down 72 percent since 2009. A fall in capital costs combined with efficiency improvements contributed to that price drop.
  • Global investment in renewable energy edged up two percent in 2017 to $279.8 billion. Since 2004, the cumulative investment is $2.9 trillion.
  • Although the total amount of energy coming from renewable resources is still dwarfed by that coming from fossil fuels, because of all of the existing energy infrastructure, it is growing. The proportion of world electricity generated by wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and hydro power rose from 11 percent in 2016 to 12.1 percent in 2017. (Ten years ago, that all-renewables figure was five percent). While that doesn’t sound like much, solar has become the cheapest new form of energy in nearly 60 countries worldwide.
  • The added contribution of more renewable energy from 11 percent to 12.1 percent of all power had the effect of preventing the emission of 1.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide. That’s roughly the same amount produced by the entire U.S. transportation system.
  • The biggest investments in renewable energy came from the developing world. Developing economies, including China, Brazil, and India, committed $177 billion to renewables, a hike of 20 percent, while investments from developed countries were down 19 percent.
  • The future of investments in renewables could be changing, as developed countries have started dropping government price supports, while countries with developing economies, such as Mexico and countries in the Middle East, are providing more support.

The foreword to the UN report singled out China as the leader.

China has been the leading destination for renewable energy investment, accounting for 45 percent of the global investment. The country has initiated 13 offshore wind projects, which in addition to reducing emissions will generate jobs in all stages of construction and operation. This demonstrates the potential for renewable energy to fight climate change and boost economic growth.

China also became the largest buyer of electric vehicles. The Chinese bought 2 ½ times as many electric cars as did car buyers in the U.S.

Of course, China still remains the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, due to its sheer size, population, and traditional reliance on coal and other fossil fuels. Overall worldwide, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reached 406.5 parts per million in 2017, up 2.3 ppm from 2016. And 2017 was the second hottest year on record.

Still, the report’s authors recognize the renewables movement as positive and groundbreaking. Said Erik Solheim, the head of the UN Environment Programme and one of the report’s authors: “The extraordinary surge in solar investment shows how the global energy map is changing and, more importantly, what the economic benefits are of such a shift. Investments in renewables bring more people into the economy, they deliver more jobs, better quality jobs, and better paid jobs. Clean energy also means less pollution, which means healthier, happier development.”

Too bad that Republican leaders in the U.S. are still sticking their heads in the oil-soaked sand.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on April 15, 2018.


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