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Watts Up With Renewables? According to IEA, About a Thousand Billion More in Capacity by 2022

The big word around the block is that solar is presently changing the global energy game — and rapidly.

The major driver of this global sea change is presently China. But it appears that India is also about to play a substantial role. The U.S., depending on the policy choices of the Trump Administration, can remain a renewable energy leader or turn into a laggard. It all just depends on the whims of a man who has shown a quixotic propensity for pushing terrible policies and then, somehow, self-sabotaging at least half of them.

(Many locations around the world are rapidly transitioning to renewable energy. The destructive impacts of human caused climate change may well serve to speed that process as we see here with Tesla providing solar power generation to Puerto Rico hospitals following the terrible impacts of Hurricane Maria.)

Back to China, the country now holds about 110 billion watts (gigawatts) of annual practical solar panel manufacturing capacity. This is about 66 percent of the world total. From this capacity, it appears that China will itself add around 50 gigawatts of installed solar this year alone — pushing the cumulative to around 125 to 130 gigawatts by year end. China had already, as of September, added 34 gigawatts during 2017 with an overall installed generation capacity at 111 Gigawatts as of about a month ago.

Such a massive add by China will likely drive global new solar capacity in 2017 to around 80 to 100 gigawatts. Add in wind and hydro and that high number probably hits close to 150 billion watts in just one year.

The massive new solar additions are now helping renewables to swamp dirty energy sources like coal and somewhat less dirty though still very carbon intensive sources like gas. This remarkable achievement is primarily due to the fact that solar is now presently cost competitive with these older, more traditional energy sources. And the price of solar energy worldwide is expected to continue to fall over the coming years. According to a recent report — by a further 60 percent within the next decade.

Major energy think tanks are starting to take notice. And it is on the basis of solar, wind, and hydro’s relative economic strengths due to growing price advantages (particularly for solar), that the International Energy Agency (IEA) has predicted a 1,000 gigawatt addition of new renewable energy sources through 2022. Such an addition, in just five years, according to IEA’s Dr Fatih Birol, would amount to “half of the current global capacity in coal power, which took 80 years to build.” The agency also notes that renewable capacity additions will effectively double additions from sources like gas and coal.

(New study shows the cost of solar will fall by another 60 percent over the next ten years.)

IEA recognizes that China, the U.S. and India will be primary drivers of this large renewable energy gain. Though the agency points out that detrimental U.S. policy choices could put a damper on renewable energy additions in that key market. However, IEA also notes that more positive policy choices by China, India, the U.S. and others could result in a more than doubling of the new capacity add for renewables to 2,155 GW. Such policies not only result in major renewable energy growth. They would also produce wholesale replacement of fossil fuel and carbon emissions based power sources. A considerable boon to the global climate.

Even IEA’s base five year scenario shows renewable electrical power generation growing to compose 30 percent of the global market. This up from 26 percent during 2016. Though still not as high a percentage as coal, IEA predicts that renewables will make up half the difference with that dirtiest of power sources by 2022.

(With atmospheric CO2 levels likely to hit between 411 and 412 parts per million by May of 2018, global carbon emissions cuts due to fossil fuel energy replacement by renewables couldn’t come sooner. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

IEA also predicts that power consumption from electrical vehicles will double from now to 2022. A somewhat conservative estimate considering the fact that the number of EVs on the road will likely double by 2019 to 2020 and that battery sizes for EVs are rapidly growing. IEA’s more conservative base scenario projection continues in that it sees renewables’ contribution to transportation energy sources only growing from 4 to 5 percent by 2022.

Taking this analysis a step further and applying it to the potential for global carbon emissions reductions we should point out that renewables taking up a larger portion of both power generation and transportation through 2022 will present an opportunity to start bending the carbon curve downward. The adoption range in which renewables begin to replace fossil fuels at a rapid enough pace to strongly impact global carbon emissions is 150 to 250 GW added per year + a net replacement of the fossil fuel based transportation fleets with EVs and other alternative fuel vehicles. Given IEA’s forecast, it appears that there’s a decent likelihood that this will happen over then next five years — barring any major numb-skullery by the present U.S. President and his sometimes-enabling fellow republicans in the U.S. Congress.

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