WASHINGTON, July 12, 2017 - For the first time, China has replaced the United States as the world’s top producer of renewable electricity, according to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy.
Renewable power (excluding hydro) grew by 14.1 percent worldwide in 2016, below the 10-year average, but at 53 metric tons of oil equivalent (mtoe), the largest increment on record.
Wind provided more than half of renewables growth, while solar energy contributed almost a third despite accounting for only 18 percent of the total.
Asia Pacific overtook Europe and Eurasia as the largest producing region of renewable power, while China overtook the United States as having the largest share of the world’s total electric power generating capacity – 20.5 percent compared to 20 percent for the U.S.
Renewables are “the leading light of the (global) energy transition,” said BP analyst Spencer Dale, noting that wind grew by 15.6 percent, or 131 terawatt hours (TWh) and solar jumped by 29.6 percent, or 77 TWh). A terawatt is a unit of power equal to 1 trillion watts.
“Although the share of renewable power within primary energy (capacity) edged up only slightly to 3.2 percent, its strong growth meant it accounted for over 30 percent of the increase in primary energy,” Dale said.
The analyst said China continued to dominate renewables growth, contributing more than 40 percent of global growth – more than the entire Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a 35-nation intergovernmental body focused on policy development.
He said a reminder of the variability that weather conditions can inject into renewable generation from year to year was found in the EU, where renewable power barely grew as load factors fell back from unusually high levels in 2015. As an example, he cited a decline in Denmark’s wind power last year that was almost 5 percent of its total power generation.
Although wind continued to provide the lion’s share of the increase in renewable power, solar is catching up fast, Dale said, citing the review's separate tracking of 67 countries showing, in any given year, they produced a material amount of different energies.
“It took around 20 years for the share of countries producing a sizeable amount of wind power to increase from 15 percent to 75 percent; solar achieved the same degree of diffusion in less than half that time,” he said. “These different rates of diffusion reflect the different characteristics of the technologies: The more modular nature of solar power, together with its steeper learning curve, has allowed it to spread more quickly.”
By contrast, Dale noted, nuclear energy plateaued at less than half the number of countries, adding that the fact wind and solar technologies “are not subject to onerous security restrictions has helped their rapid diffusion relative to nuclear power.”
Still, the global nuclear power generation increased by 1.3 percent (9.3 mtoe) in 2016. China accounted for all the net growth, expanding by 24.5 percent, producing an incremental increase of 9.6 mtoe, the largest of any country since 2004.
“China's nuclear program is just beginning to ramp up,” Dale said. “It brought on five new reactors last year – the largest annual increase in China's nuclear history – and has more than 20 reactors currently under construction.”
Global hydroelectric power generation rose by 2.8 percent in 2016, a 27.1-mtoe increase. China (10.9 mtoe) and the United States (3.5 mtoe) provided the largest increments, while Venezuela experienced the largest decline, down 3.2 mtoe.
Dale said carbon emissions were essentially flat in 2016, the third consecutive year in which there has been little or no growth in carbon emissions. That’s “good news,” Dale said, especially in contrast to the previous 10 years, when emissions grew by almost 2.5 percent a year.
“Some of this slowdown reflects weaker GDP growth, but the majority reflects faster declines in the carbon intensity of GDP – the average amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP – driven by accelerating improvements in both energy efficiency and the fuel mix,” including increased renewable energy, he said.
But Dale also said the experience of the past three years raises the question as to whether it represented “a decisive break from the past and a significant step towards the goals of Paris, or was it largely driven by cyclical factors which are likely to unwind over time? Long-run transition or short-run adjustment?”
The analyst said that in looking at the factors driving the improvement, the key difference is China, where carbon emissions are estimated to have actually fallen over the past two years, after growing by more than 75 percent over the previous 10 years.
“There are good reasons for thinking that some of this improvement in China's carbon emissions reflects structural factors that are likely to persist: slower economic growth; a shift in the composition of growth towards less energy-intensive sectors, and a movement away from coal,” Dale said. “But some probably reflects cyclical factors, particularly the contractions in some of China’s most energy intensive sectors (steel, iron and concrete), which are unlikely to keep being repeated and may well unwind in future years.
“The juxtaposition of short-run adjustments and long-run transition is likely to be a feature of energy markets for many years to come,” he said.