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Renewables powering past COVID-19 crisis with record growth – IEA report

Renewable power is growing robustly around the world this year, contrasting with the sharp declines triggered by the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in many other parts of the energy sector such as oil, gas, and coal, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
"Renewables are resilient to the COVID crisis but not to policy uncertainties,” remarked Dr Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director.

According to the Renewables 2020 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) released on November 10, 2020, global energy demand is set to decline by 5 percent while renewables demand will increase by 1 percent, thanks to almost 7 percent growth in electricity generation. Bioenergy use in industry and biofuels transport gets the biggest hit (graphic courtesy IEA).

Driven by China and the United States (US), new additions of renewable power capacity worldwide will increase to a record level of almost 200 GW this year, the IEA’s Renewables 2020 report released on November 10, 2020, forecasts.

This rise – representing almost 90 percent of the total expansion in overall power capacity globally – is led by wind, hydropower, and solar PV. Wind and solar additions are set to jump by 30 percent in both the US and China as developers rush to take advantage of expiring incentives.

Even stronger growth is to come. India and the European Union (EU) will be the driving forces behind a record expansion of global renewable capacity additions of nearly 10 percent next year – the fastest growth since 2015 – according to the report.

This is the result of the commissioning of delayed projects where construction and supply chains were disrupted by the pandemic, and growth in markets where the pre-COVID project pipeline was robust.

India is expected to be the largest contributor to the renewables upswing in 2021, with the country’s annual additions doubling from 2020.

Renewable power is defying the difficulties caused by the pandemic, showing robust growth while other fuels struggle. The resilience and positive prospects of the sector are clearly reflected by continued strong appetite from investors – and the future looks even brighter with new capacity additions on course to set fresh records this year and next, said Dr Fatih Birol.

Over the first 10 months of 2020, China, India, and the EU have driven auctioned renewable power capacity worldwide 15 percent higher than in the same period last year – a new record that shows expectations of strong demand for renewables over the medium and long term.

At the same time, shares of publicly listed renewable equipment manufacturers and project developers have been outperforming most major stock market indices and the overall energy sector. By October, shares of solar companies worldwide had more than doubled in value from December 2019.

Policy needs to support momentum

However, policymakers still need to take steps to support the strong momentum behind renewables. In the IEA report’s main forecast, the expiry of incentives in key markets and the resulting uncertainties lead to a small decline in renewables capacity additions in 2022.

But if countries address these policy uncertainties in time, the report estimates that global solar PV and wind additions could each increase by a further 25 percent in 2022.

Cost reductions and sustained policy support are expected to drive strong renewables growth beyond 2022. Despite the challenges emerging from the COVID-19 crisis, the fundamentals of renewable energy expansion have not changed. Solar PV and onshore wind are already the cheapest ways of adding new electricity-generating plants in most countries. In countries where good resources and cheap financing are available, wind and solar PV plants will challenge existing fossil fuel plants.

Critical factors influencing the pace of deployment will be policy decisions in key markets like China, and effective support for rooftop solar PV, which has been impacted by the crisis as households and businesses reprioritized investments.

Under favorable policy conditions, solar PV annual additions could reach a record level of 150 GW by 2022 – an increase of almost 40 percent in just three years.

Renewables are resilient to the Covid crisis but not to policy uncertainties. Governments can tackle these issues to help bring about a sustainable recovery and accelerate clean energy transitions. In the United States, for instance, if the proposed clean electricity policies of the next US administration are implemented, they could lead to much more rapid deployment of solar PV and wind, contributing to faster decarbonisation of the power sector, said Dr Fatih Birol.

The electricity generated by renewable technologies will increase by 7 percent globally in 2020, underpinned by the record new capacity additions, the report estimates. This growth comes despite a 5 percent annual drop in global energy demand, the largest since the Second World War (WWII).

Biofuels and renewable heat plunge

However, renewables outside the electricity sector are suffering from the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. Biofuels used in transport is set to experience their first annual decline in two decades, driven by the wider plunge in transport fuel demand this year as well as lower fossil fuel prices reducing the economic attractiveness of biofuels.

Demand for bioenergy in industry is also falling as a result of the wider drop in economic activity. The net result of these declines and the growth of renewable power is an expected overall increase of 1 percent in global renewable energy demand in 2020.

The IEA Renewables 2020 report notes that thus far (August 2020) financial support to the aviation industry seems a missed opportunity for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Of 30 airlines receiving government bailouts, only four (14 percent) had bailouts that were subject to environmental conditions. Applying a 2 percent SAF blending requirement would increase demand by a factor of 50 from 2019 levels (graphic courtesy IEA).

Renewable fuels for transport and industry are an area in particular need of potential policy support, as the sector has been severely hit by the demand shock caused by the crisis. More can and should be done, the report says, to support deployment and innovation in bioenergy to supply sustainable fuels for those sectors.

Overall bullish outlook

The report’s outlook for the next five years sees cost reductions and sustained policy support continuing to drive strong growth in renewable power technologies. Total wind and solar PV capacity are on course to surpass natural gas in 2023 and coal in 2024.

Driven by rapid cost declines, annual offshore wind additions are set to surge, accounting for one-fifth of the total wind market in 2025. The growing capacity will take the amount of renewable electricity produced globally to new heights.

In 2025, renewables are set to become the largest source of electricity generation worldwide, ending coal’s five decades as the top power provider. By that time, renewables are expected to supply one-third of the world’s electricity – and their total capacity will be twice the size of the entire power capacity of China today, ended Dr Fatih Birol.

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