Global wind and solar developers took 40 years to install their first trillion watts of power generation capacity, and the next trillion might be finished within the next five years.
That was the conclusion of research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which estimated that the industry reached the 1 terawatt milestone some time in the first half of this year.
That was almost as much generation capacity as the entire US power fleet, although renewable energy sources work less often than traditional coal and nuclear plants and therefore yield less electricity over time.
The findings illustrate the scale of the green energy boom, which has drawn US$2.3 trillion of investment to deploy wind and solar farms at the scale operating today.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimated that the falling costs of those technologies mean the next terawatt of capacity would cost about half as much — US$1.23 trillion — and arrive sometime in 2023.
“Hitting 1 terawatt is a tremendous achievement for the wind and solar industries, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s just the start,” Bloomberg New Energy Finance head of analysis Albert Cheung said in London. “Wind and solar are winning the battle for cost supremacy, so this milestone will be just the first of many.”
The world had a total of about 6.2 terawatts of installed capacity in 2016, about 1 terawatt of that being coal plants in China, the research group said.
Like all milestones, reaching 1 terawatt is an arbitrary mark that scratches the surface of the debate about how much renewable energy sources will contribute to the world’s energy system.
Each power plant works at a different “capacity factor,” a measure capturing both the efficiency of the facility in generating electricity and how often it works. On average, wind farms have a capacity factor of about 34 percent worldwide, meaning they work about one-third of the time, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said.
Some of the best sites have factors greater than 60 percent. For solar photovoltaics that track the sun, those readings range from 10 percent in the UK to 19 percent in the US and 24 percent in Chile’s Atacama desert.
By comparison, coal plants have a 40 percent capacity factor and nuclear sometimes double that.
Even so, the terawatt of installed capacity for renewable energy sources marks substantial growth for an industry that barely existed at the start of the century. More than 90 percent of all that capacity was installed in the past 10 years, reflecting incentives that Germany pioneered in the early 2000s that made payouts for green power transparent for investors and bankers alike.
Asian nations have absorbed 44 percent of the new wind and 58 percent of solar developments to date, with China accounting for about one-third of all those installations.
Wind made up 54 percent of the first terawatt, but solar is expected to overtake wind in early 2020.
China has led the world in installing solar power over the past five years, holding 34 percent of global solar capacity and it will continue to be the world’s largest market for both power sources, reaching 1.1 terawatts in the country by 2050.
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