For the fourth year in a row the growth of the renewable electricity share of global electricity production continued uninterrupted, gaining 0.4 of a percentage point between 2010 and 2011 and thus past the 20% threshold (20.2% in 2011).
The context of this increase was slightly different from that of the previous twelve months. Firstly, renewable energies automatically benefited from the sharp drop (186.9 TWh) in nuclear electricity output in 2011 for which the Fukushima accident in Japan and Germany's decision phase out nuclear energy are directly responsible. The nuclear added share of total electricity output subsequently slipped by 1.1 of a percentage point on its 2010 level of 11.7%. At the same time, the growth of fossil fuel electricity production in conventional thermal power stations slowed down (increasing by 4% between 2010 and 2011 compared to 6.9% between 2009 and 2010). Yet this pace was in phase with the trend over the decade (a mean of 4.1% per annum between 2001 and 2011).
Secondly, at 2.8%, growth of global electricity output between 2010 and 2011 was less than half that recorded between 2009 and 2010 (6.3%), bearing in mind that the latter (1 266.7 TWh) was exceptional in that it partly made up for the drop in 2009 (122.4 TWh) and was the only increase recorded over the last four years.
The additional 600 TWh generated in 2011 fell in line with the usual growth pattern. However, in a departure from the previous year's results 85.7% of this growth can be put down to Chinese output alone (514.4 TWh). The Chinese effort took it past the United States to the top of the electricity producer country stakes for the first time. In 2010, an unusual year, the increase in Chinese electricity output was of the same magnitude (498.1 TWh), but China was only responsible for 39.3% of the total increase.
South America and South Asia are the only other regions whose electricity output accelerated between 2010 and 2011. Growth in electricity production by the remaining regions was lower than last year with output flattening in North America and even dipping in Western Europe and Oceania.
Electricity production trends correlate well with economic activity and signal that the economic crisis that started in North America then spread to Western Europe, now affects all the world's regions leaving aside Asia and South America for the time being.
Renewably-sourced electricity has not been hit by the same kind of loss in momentum. Wind energy and solar power have stolen a march on the others, with accelerated development of both wind energy (30.9% between 2010 and 2011 as against 27.2% between 2009 and 2010) and solar power (84% between 2010 and 2011 as against 59.5% between 2009 and 2010). Today wind energy is responsible for 2.1% of global electricity production compared to hardly 0.2% in 2001. Solar power is gradually coming in from the sidelines around the world and accounted for 0.3% of global production in 2011, boosted by the development of high-capacity photovoltaic plants and concentrated solar power plants (primarily in Spain).
In 2011 the hydropower sector lost some of the thrust it enjoyed in taking the renewable sectors forward in previous years (increasing 2.2% between 2010 and 2011). The rainfall shortages in East and South-East Asia, the world's leading producer region, are to blame as they stymied the region's soaring hydropower output of recent years. Nonetheless the 2011 hydropower share of total electricity production, at 16.3%, was almost the same as in 2010.
The same goes for biomass electricity growth (also 2.2% between 2010 and 2011 compared to 7.7% between 2009 and 2010), as the world's leading producer region Europe, can no longer sustain its growth rate.
Investments naturally underpin these renewable energy performance levels. The UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) "Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment" report claims that despite an increasingly difficult economic situation and keener competition, investments in renewable energies climbed by 17% to $ 257 billion (€ 200 billion) in 2011– except for major hydropower projects. However this is down on the 2010 investment level that had recorded a 37% year-on-year rise. The figure for 2011 was achieved in spite of two prevailing stumbling blocks – sovereign debts in Europe and tumbling renewable energy equipment prices. Looking at the various renewable sectors, solar power was the main beneficiary of these new investments ($ 147 billion), well ahead of wind energy ($ 84 billion), biomass and waste ($ 11 billion), biofuels ($ 7 billion), small hydro ($ 6 billion), geothermal power ($ 3 billion) and marine energies ($ 0,3 billion)
In 2011 Europe was the main recipient of investment in renewables with $ 101 billion ($ 92.3 billion in 2010), dwarfing China, which invested $ 52.2 billion ($ 44.5 billion in 2010) and the United States with $ 50.8 billion ($ 32.5 billion in 2010). Investments in renewable energies also increased in India ($ 12.3 billion) and Brazil ($ 7.5 billion).
Renewable energies according to REN21's Renewables 2012 Global Status Report, were earmarked for almost half of the 208 GW of new electricity-generating capacity installed. More than 25% (i.e. more than 1 380 GW) of global electricity production capacity put at 5 360 GW in 2011 now harness renewable energy sources. Within the European Union, renewable energies attracted 71% of the total electricity-generating capacity added in 2011, with photovoltaic solar alone taking up half of this figure.
The report also points out that in at least 118 countries, more than half of which are developing economies, renewable energies targets were set at the beginning of 2012, which is evidence of the growing enthusiasm for these energies across the world.
The fourteenth edition of the worldwide inventory of electricity production from renewable energy sources clearly demonstrates the start of global energy transition towards renewable energies, driven by the pressing need to secure energy supplies, combat climate warming and electrify areas deprived of access to electricity. Renewable energy technologies have proven their efficiency and positive impacts offering prospects that enable Germany to forecast that by 2050, 80% of its electricity will be renewably-sourced. Even so, because transition depends on the political will of governments to develop these sectors it is fragile. The sectors have yet to achieve short-term cost-effectiveness. Declining political support for renewable energies in developing countries arising from the implementation of austerity measures could postpone their global development and delay the emergence of a transition founded on long-term, sustainable energy.
Another factor could undermine renewable-friendly policies, namely the build-up of shale gas and oil production. Proponents rightly or wrongly advocating harnessing these unconventional fields with their new fossil fuel supplies could well be used as justification for opting out of supporting renewables.
The international negotiating process on climate protection has stalled giving even more cause for concern. The predictable failure of the Doha Climate Change Conference at the end of 2012 yet again demonstrates the international community's inertia in putting individual interests to one side in favour of working for the common good. Thus agreement can only come in a new round of negotiations, if it is to happen, by 2015 (as agreed in the closing hours of the Durban Conference at the end of 2011) and that a new protocol will have to be in force by 2020. Time is not on our side however, because if humanity cannot curb the GHG emission rate soon, stabilising global warming at 2°C by the end of the century will no longer be feasible. The planet will irrevocably head towards 4°C. Furthermore it is hard to believe that if responsibility was not collectively taken in 2012 that by the time matters are extremely urgent, it will be easier to assume consensual responsibility! In the mean time, the more responsible countries have no option but to act alone, pursuing their policies to set up proactive frameworks to encourage the development of renewable energies. Even if this strategy is costly in the short term, it will only win in the medium and long term because it will enable those countries to free themselves of energy-thirsty infrastructures and align their growth to new higher value-added production modes.