Solar is so hot right now: Context for 2017’s 98 GW of photovoltaic panels

To say 2017 was a good year for solar panels is a bit of an understatement. According to a report from the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, last year more solar capacity was installed around the world than net coal, gas, and nuclear plant capacity combined.

Solar’s total came to 98 gigawatts (GW) of capacity versus 73 GW of net fossil fuel capacity added (that is, additional fossil fuel capacity adjusted for fossil fuel plant retirements).

That’s great for solar, but it also shows we’re nowhere close to breaking our addiction to fossil fuels. The world added 67 GW of coal plant capacity in 2017, but 32 GW were retired, leaving a net 35 GW of coal capacity added. For gas-fired plants, gross additions totaled 54 GW, and 16 GW were retired, leaving a net addition of 38 GW.

The numbers come from Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s database. The company partnered with the Frankfurt School and the United Nations Environmental Programme to complete the 86-page analysis of 2017’s energy landscape.

The groups also tracked investment in energy, which can give a sense of the direction that a particular type of generation is going. Solar wins out here, too. In 2017, solar investment shot past investment in every other technology, attracting $160.8 billion, up 18 percent from the year prior. Coal and gas investment topped out at $103 billion. Solar investment beating fossil fuel investment is a positive development for a world concerned with the climate change, but it’s also important to remember that $103 billion in new coal and gas plants will likely be around, pumping out carbon dioxide, for more than 30 or 40 years, barring any development in carbon capture and storage.

By far the biggest factor boosting solar’s global numbers in 2017 was China, which added 53 GW of solar in 2017. Cheap solar panels from China likely also boosted solar numbers in other countries, too. But with new import tariffs from the Trump Administration announced in January, the trend was dampened somewhat in the US.

China also grew its renewable energy budget in general. It spent $126.6 billion on renewable investment (excluding large-scale hydro) last year. Australia, Mexico, and Sweden also ramped up their renewable spending considerably.

Not every region followed that trend. The US, Europe, and Japan all saw drops in renewable energy investment from the previous year.

The report states that electricity generated from renewable energy (excluding large-scale hydro) rose from 11 percent of all generation in 2016 to 12.1 percent in 2017. The latest number “corresponds to about 1.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions avoided—roughly equivalent to those produced by the entire US transport system.”

Speaking of the transport system, 2017 also saw the sale of 1.1 million electric vehicles (EVs), the report says. The good news is that EV battery costs are still falling. According to the researchers’ estimates, lithium ion battery packs for vehicles fell from $273/kWh in 2016 to $209/kWh in 2017. A battery is one of the more expensive parts of an EV and if the cost of a battery falls, the cost of the EV is likely to fall as well.

Unfortunately, all of this investment in renewable energy seems to be trailing a net increase in carbon emissions. In 2017, global carbon emissions rose 2 percent, also mostly due to China’s explosive growth and its reliance on gas-fired generation through a low-precipitation year that hurt hydroelectric generation.

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