Renewable energy is growing fast around the world and will be the second biggest source of electricity, after coal, by 2016, according to a five-year outlook published on Wednesday by the International Energy Agency.
Developing countries are building more wind, solar and hydro-electric power plants to meet rising power demand and combat local pollution problems. And the costs of renewables are falling below the cost of traditional power sources such as coal, natural gas and oil in some markets with high-priced power.
Renewable power is the fastest-growing power generation sector and it is expected to increase by 40% in the next five years. By 2018 it will make up a quarter of the world’s energy mix, according to the report up from 20% in 2011.
Energy generated with wind, solar, geothermal and energy derived from plants – the non-hydroelectric sources generally favoured by environmental groups and sustainability experts – is also expected to grow quickly, but it contributes a far smaller amount of energy to the global mix.
These non-hydro renewables will supply 8% of the world’s energy by 2018, up from 4% in 2011 and 2% in 2006.
Still, renewable power is facing uncertain times as subsidies in developed countries wane. Investment in renewable projects fell in 2012, according to the IEA, an energy security and research organisation based in Paris that serves 28 oil-importing countries, including the US.
In a report published in April, the IEA said the world’s energy is no cleaner than it was 20 years ago because of rising reliance on coal-fired generation in China, India, and parts of Europe that are phasing out nuclear power and facing high natural gas prices.
“The rapid growth of renewables continues to beat expectations and is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak assessment of global progress toward a cleaner and more diversified energy mix,” the report concludes.
The use of biofuels is expected to grow, though at a slower rate than renewable electricity, in part because companies haven’t succeeded in developing technology that can squeeze fuels from plant waste or dedicated biofuel crops such as grasses at commercial scale. The vast majority of biofuel used today is alcohol – called ethanol – made from sugar cane or corn.
Biofuels use is projected to increase 25% by 2018 to 2.4 million barrels per day. By comparison, the world consumes 90 million barrels per day of petroleum.
Developing countries, led by China, will account for two-thirds of the global increase in renewable generation. Growth in Europe and the US is expected to slow, though President Barack Obama outlined a sweeping plan on Tuesday that would encourage renewed investment in renewable sources.
IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in a statement that the biggest impediment to further renewable growth is changing energy policies that increase risk for investors. “Many renewables no longer require high economic incentives. But they do still need long-term policies that provide a predictable and reliable market and regulatory framework compatible with societal goals,” she said.
The IEA estimates that worldwide subsides for fossil fuels are six times higher than incentives for renewables.