Have you ever been to the ocean on a high-surf day, and watched the water at the shoreline be pulled away as a huge wave builds somewhere offshore? Well, that kind of “groundswell” is what we’re starting to experience in the renewable energy industry. And it’s very exciting! There were many significant developments in 2016, but the momentum really started building last year.
A Record-Setting Year in 2015
Looking back, 2015 was a record year for renewable energy according to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21) in its Renewables 2016 Global Status Report (GSR). There were a number of high-profile agreements signed by G7 and G20 governments to increase energy efficiency and pave the way for easier access to renewable energy.
With those commitments as a foundation, the world experienced its largest ever annual increase in renewable power capacity in 2015 — an estimated 147 gigawatts (GW). And despite the fact that the cost of fossil fuels remained low, people and companies continued to turn to renewable sources. For the second year in a row, solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind power had record growth.
Overall global capacity reached 1,849 gigawatts (GW), an increase of 8.7% over 2014. Capping 2015 was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, where 195 countries reached an agreement to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius and most in attendance committed to increasing renewable energy production and energy efficiency.
Continued Growth: 2016 and Beyond
While the final numbers for this year won’t be available until early next, the data through the first six months of 2016 is very encouraging. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) says that renewable energy in the U.S. (including hydroelectric, biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar) provided 16.9 percent of electricity generation in the first half of the year, compared to 13.7 percent in 2015.
In other words, renewable energy is beginning to prove itself as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. This may come as a surprise to many people who think of renewable sources as being on the “fringe” of the U.S. energy grid.
Beyond the energy production numbers, there were some incredible advances in the renewable energy field in 2016. Here is just a sampling:
- Tesla’s Gigafactory. To support its mission of accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy, Tesla’s new facility (appropriately located in Sparks, Nevada) will be producing battery cells by the end of this year. The name Gigafactory comes from the factory’s planned annual battery production capacity of 35 gigawatt-hours (GWh).
- Sweden’s fossil fuel-free declaration. Having invested heavily in renewable energy and climate change action in its 2016 budget, Sweden continues to move closer to ending its use of fossil fuels. The fact that a country is committed enough to this goal to publicly declare it is groundbreaking and inspiring.
- Swiss scientists’ biofuel breakthrough. Biofuel is an important source of renewable energy, and researchers have now found a way to convert 80 percent of a previously unused component of biomass called lignin into valuable molecules for biofuel and plastics.
- Tesla’s solar roofs. Energy provided by the sun in one hour is enough to meet our planet’s needs for an entire year. Tesla has developed roof tiles that resemble standard shingles and can supply 100 percent of a home’s electricity needs while also storing backup energy in what it calls Powerwall battery units. The first installations are expected next summer.
- Washington State University’s advances in water splitting. Researchers have developed a method for more efficiently creating hydrogen from water using a low-cost catalyst. This discovery supports our ability to use the excess electricity generated from renewable sources to split water into oxygen and hydrogen for use in fuel-cell vehicles.
These are just a few of the dozens of significant developments in renewable energy this year. And with the momentum that’s being created, 2017 promises to deliver even more game-changing renewable energy solutions.