By Joel Hruska on April 2, 2015
After two years of declines, total global energy investment in renewables shot up again in 2014 — driven in part by rising demand for solar power in Asia, as well as new wind turbine construction in the North Sea. China alone invested 37% more in renewable power, as the country’s demand for additional energy has been insatiable over the past decade. But the growth wasn’t limited to Asian markets — Brazil, India, South Africa, Chile, Mexico, Kenya, and Turkey all invested more than a billion dollars in green electricity in 2014.
This news comes from the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment report, produced by the UN, and it tracks other developments we’ve been seeing from various parts of the energy industry. Globally, multiple developing nations are investing more in renewables than in other types of power generation. Net investment in additional fossil fuel capacity came to $132 billion, compared with $242.5 billion invested in new renewable energy facilities. The overwhelming majority of the investment is in solar and wind power, which account for well over 90% of all new investment.
Headwinds and tailwinds in renewable energy
There are multiple factors driving investment in new forms of energy production, as well as noted competitive concerns. One reason renewable energy is surging in many developing countries is because small-scale grids, local production, and lower upkeep costs are a much better fit for nations without the advanced infrastructure that countries like the United States take for granted. The transformers used in modern power plants, for example, are massive — so huge that the government believes it could take the northeast corridor of the United States 3-5 years to completely repair the fallout of a devastating, Carrington-level solar flare, should one ever strike that area of the country.
It’s not just a question of building a fossil fuel plant. The country in question has to be able to guarantee regular fuel supply and infrastructure upkeep. If you live in a nation where economic uncertainty, civil unrest, or simple poverty make that difficult, then a local plant that relies on wind or sun may be far more reliable than a facility then runs on coal or natural gas.
The other advantage of renewable power can be a relatively steady cost of generation. Oil and gas prices have surged and fallen dramatically over the past decade (dropping 50% in the matter of months most recently). And while such drops are great news in the short-term, a company that initiates new power plant construction when oil prices fall could find itself paying significantly higher prices only a few years later. The cost of solar panels, both in terms of installation and efficiency, has been falling for years.
What’s most striking about the shift in investments over the past 10 years is how developing nations have caught up to developed ones. In 2004, developing nations invested just a quarter of what developed ones did. In 10 years, countries like the US and Europe have increased their investment by a factor of 3.9x, while developing nations have jumped by 15x.
The biggest headwind working against renewable energy investments in 2015 is the global fall-off in oil prices, which could make fossil fuel investment more attractive in the short term. The volatility in this market, combined with global concerns over the economic and ecological issues associated with climate change, however, is expected to keep renewable energy projects on the drawing boards of many countries. Subsidy shifts and local economic challenges can and do shift how individual countries allocate resources, but the steadily falling price of solar power has kept momentum in the industry.