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Solar leads the charge in another record year for renewables

Boosted by a strong solar PV market, renewables accounted for almost two-thirds of net new power capacity around the world in 2016, with almost 165 gigawatts (GW) coming online. This was another record year, largely as a result of booming solar PV deployment in China and around the world, driven by sharp cost reductions and policy support.

Last year, new solar PV capacity around the world grew by 50%, reaching over 74 GW, with China accounting for almost half of this expansion. For the first time, solar PV additions rose faster than any other fuel, surpassing the net growth in coal.

This deployment was accompanied by the announcement of record-low auction prices as low as 3 cents per kilowatt hour. Low announced prices for solar and wind were recorded in a variety of places, including India, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and Chile.

These announced contract prices for solar PV and wind power purchase agreements are increasingly comparable or lower than generation cost of newly built gas and coal power plants.

A bright future for renewables to 2022, solar PV entering a new era
This record performance in 2016 forms the bedrock of the IEA’s electricity forecast, which sees continued strong growth through 2022, with renewable electricity capacity forecast to expand by over 920 GW, an increase of 43%. This year’s renewable forecast is 12% higher than last year, thanks mostly to solar PV upward revisions in China and India.

Solar PV is entering a new era. For the next five years, solar PV represents the largest annual capacity additions for renewables, well above wind and hydro. This marks a turning point and underpins our more optimistic solar PV forecast which is revised up by over one-third compared to last year’s report. This revision is driven by continuous technology cost reductions and unprecedented market dynamics in China as a consequence of policy changes.

Under an accelerated case – where government policy lifts barriers to growth – IEA analysis finds that renewable capacity growth could be boosted by another 30%, totalling an extra 1,150 GW by 2022 led by China.

Solar PV and wind capacity in China could by then reach twice the total power capacity of Japan today.

China is the undisputed renewable growth leader
China alone is responsible for over 40% of global renewable capacity growth, which is largely driven by concerns about air pollution and capacity targets that were outlined in the country’s 13th five-year plan to 2020. In fact, China already surpassed its 2020 solar PV target, and the IEA expects it to exceed its wind target in 2019. China is also the world market leader in hydropower, bioenergy for electricity and heat, and electric vehicles.

Today, China represents half of global solar PV demand, while Chinese companies account for around 60% of total annual solar cell manufacturing capacity globally. As such, market and policy developments in China will have global implications for solar PV demand, supply, and prices. In the Renewables 2017 main case forecast, total solar PV capacity around the world reaches 740 GW by 2022 – more than the combined total power capacities of India and Japan today.

If uncertainties and barriers are addressed, solar PV growth could accelerate even more. Two important challenges in China – the growing cost of renewable subsidies and grid integration – limit growth in the main case forecast.

China’s renewable energy policies are being modified quite substantially in order to address these challenges. China is moving away from its feed-in-tariff (FIT) programme to a quota system with green certificates. Together with ambitious power market reform, new transmission lines, and the expansion of distributed generation, these new policies are expected to speed up deployment of solar (and wind). However, the timing and implementation of this policy transition remains uncertain.

Renewable markets around the world

The United States
Despite policy uncertainty, the United States remains the second-largest growth market for renewables. The main drivers remain strong for new onshore wind and solar capacities, such as multi-year federal tax incentives combined with renewable portfolio standards as well as state-level policies for distributed solar PV.

Still, the current uncertainty over proposed federal tax reforms, international trade, and energy policies could have implications for the relative economics of renewables and alter their expansion over the forecast period.

India
India’s moves to address the financial health of its utilities and tackle grid-integration issues drive a more optimistic forecast. By 2022, India is expected to more than double its current renewable electricity capacity. For the first time, this growth over the forecast period is higher compared with the European Union.

Solar PV and wind together represent 90% of India’s capacity growth as auctions yielded some of the world’s lowest prices for both technologies. In some Indian states, recent contract prices are comparable to coal tariffs. India’s accelerated case indicates that renewable capacity expansion could be boosted by almost a third, providing that existing grid integration and infrastructure challenges are addressed, policy and regulatory uncertainties are reduced, and costs continue to fall. With this growth India would equal the United States, becoming the joint second-largest growth market after China.

The European Union
In the European Union, renewable growth over the forecast period is 40% lower compared with the previous five-year period. Overall, weaker electricity demand, overcapacity, and limited visibility on forthcoming auction capacity volumes in some markets remain challenges to renewable growth. Policy uncertainty beyond 2020 remains high.

If adopted, the new EU Renewable Energy Directive covering the post-2020 period would address this challenge by requiring a three-year visibility over support policies, thereby improving the market’s predictability.

Developing Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa
For the first time, Renewables 2017 tracks off-grid solar PV applications more closely in developing Asia and sub Saharan Africa. Over the forecast period, off-grid capacity in these regions will almost triple – reaching over 3 000 MW in 2022 – from industrial applications, solar home systems (SHSs), and mini-grids driven by government electrification programmes, and private sector investments.

Although this growth represents a small share of total PV capacity installed in both regions, its socio-economic impact is nonetheless significant. Over the next five years, SHSs – the most dynamic sector in the off-grid segment – are forecast to bring basic electricity services to almost 70 million more people in Asia and sub Saharan Africa. It will also lead to new business players bringing innovative payment solutions that allow low-income populations initial access to electricity services.

Wind and solar together will represent more than 80% of global renewable capacity growth in the next five years. By 2022, Denmark is expected to be the world leader, with 70% of its electricity generation coming from variable renewables.

In some European countries (Ireland, Germany and the United Kingdom), the share of wind and solar in total generation will exceed 25%. In China, India and Brazil, the share of variable generation is expected to double to over 10% in just five years. These trends have important implications going forward. Without a simultaneous increase in system flexibility (grid reinforcement and interconnections, storage, demand-side response and other flexible supply), variable renewables are more exposed to the risk of losing system value at increasing shares of market penetration since wholesale prices are depressed precisely when wind and solar production exceeds demand.

Market and policy frameworks need to evolve in order to cope simultaneously with multiple objectives, including providing long-term price signals to attract investment, ensuring efficient short-term electricity dispatching, pricing negative externalities and unlocking sufficient levels of flexibility as well as fostering a portfolio of dispatchable renewable technologies, including hydropower, bioenergy, geothermal and CSP.

By 2022, global renewables electricity generation is expected to grow by over one-third to over 8 000 terrawatts per hour, equal to the total power consumption of China, India and Germany combined. As a result, the share of renewables in power generation will reach 30% in 2022, up from 24% in 2016.

In the next five years, growth in renewable generation will be twice as large as that of gas and coal combined. While coal remains the largest source of electricity generation in 2022, renewables halve their gap with coal, down to 17% in 2022. Despite slower capacity growth, hydropower will remain the largest source of renewable electricity generation in our forecast, followed by wind, solar PV and bioenergy.

Renewable policies are spurring more competition
Renewable policies in many countries are moving from government-set tariffs to competitive auctions with long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) for utility-scale projects. Increased competition has allowed reducing remuneration levels for solar PV and wind projects by 30-40% in just two years in some key countries such as India, Germany and Turkey.

This competitive price discovery mechanism through tenders has squeezed costs along the entire value chain, thus becoming a more cost-effective policy option for governments. Auctions can also allow a better control of deployment, total incentives, and system integration aspects. Almost half of renewable electricity capacity expansion over 2017-22 is expected to be driven by competitive auctions with PPAs, compared to just over 20% in 2016.

Auction prices continue to fall
Announced auction prices for wind and solar have continued to fall although average generation costs of new-built projects remain higher. Over the period 2017-22 global average generation costs are estimated to further decline by a quarter for utility-scale solar PV; by almost 15% for onshore wind; and by a third for offshore wind.

Still, these average costs for solar PV remain relatively high because of high FITs in China and Japan as well as relatively elevated investment costs in the United States. Meanwhile, announced auction prices indicate much steeper possible cost reductions, ranging from $30-45/MWh for solar PV (India, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, Argentina) to $35-50/MWh for onshore wind (India, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Chile).

Auctions are also proving effective in rapidly reducing costs of offshore wind and CSP. While auction announcements (in terms of both volumes and prices) need to be verified over time, they suggest that expanding competitive pricing could result in even lower average costs in coming years.

Renewable transport and heat

Surging EVs to complement biofuels in renewable transport
The share of renewables in road transport is expected to increase only marginally, from over 4% in 2016 to 4.5% in 2022. Despite strongly rising sales, the share of EVs remains limited, and biofuels are still expected to represent over 90% of total renewable energy consumption in road transport by 2022. Biofuels production is expected to grow by over 16% during over the forecast period.

Asia leads this growth due to the rising demand for transport fuel, the availability of feedstocks, and supportive government policies. Brazil makes a key contribution as a result of its efforts to increase sustainable biofuels consumption in line with its national target for 2030. In the United States, ethanol and biodiesel production also expands as a result of supportive policy frameworks. Modest growth is expected in the European Union given that the policy landscape after 2020 is not expected to encourage industry investment.

Advanced biofuels (such as cellulosic ethanol) have made important progress in recent years but are not yet competitive with petroleum products. Production is expected to almost quadruple from a low base, which is still just over 1% of total biofuels production.

With a more favourable market and policy landscape, biofuel production could be 13% higher. For the first time, Renewables 2017 looks at an accelerated case forecast for biofuels that assumes additional investment in new production capacity in Brazil; scaling up fuel distribution infrastructure in the United States; and roll-out of a blending programme in India. Still, in this accelerated case, the share of biofuels in road transport fuel demand would only reach 5% by 2022.

The share of EVs in renewable transport remains limited
Renewables account for 30% of electricity consumption of EVs by 2022, up from 26% today. Globally, electricity consumed by EVs – including cars, two- and-three wheelers, and buses – is expected to double by 2022 but will still account for less than 1% of total electricity generation.

This trend is mostly driven by the rapid growth of two- and three-wheelers in China but also results from electric cars in European markets with high shares of renewable generation. The United States represents over one-fifth of global electricity consumption in cars, but the estimated consumption of renewable electricity is expected to be smaller than in China and Europe as a result of the lower share of renewables in the electricity mix.

Renewable heat grows by a quarter
Heat used for water and space heating in buildings and for industrial processes represents almost 40% of global energy-related CO2 emissions; therefore, decarbonising heat remains an important challenge. The share of renewables in heat consumption increases slowly, from 9% in 2015 to almost 11% in 2022.

The building sector is expected to lead the growth in renewable heat consumption, with the fastest growth in this sector seen in China, the European Union and North America. In industry, China and India see a significant growth in renewable heat consumption.

In terms of sources, bioenergy will lead renewable heat consumption growth over the outlook period, followed by renewable electricity for heat. Global solar thermal energy consumption is also expected to increase by over a third, although growth is forecast to be slower than in previous years.

China alone provides over a third of overall renewable heat growth over the outlook period, driven by strengthened targets for solar thermal, bioenergy and geothermal as well as by increasing concerns over air pollution in cities. The European Union is the second-largest growth market as a result of the binding targets of the Renewable Energy Directive, and it remains the global leader in terms of absolute renewable heat consumption.

Source: IEA