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China Is Definitely Winning the World's Clean Energy Race

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The world continued to double down on renewable power in 2017. Or at least, China did. Certain wealthy nations (ahem, U.S.) could stand to step up their game.

That’s according to a new report from the UN Environment Programme and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which found that worldwide, solar, wind, and other renewables (excluding large hydro plants) comprised nearly two-thirds of all new power-generating capacity in 2017. Globally, a record 157 gigawatts (GW) of renewable juice came online last year, pushing the total electric-generating capacity of renewables up to nearly 20 percent.


Newly-installed solar capacity led the charge in 2017, soaring ahead of new fossil fuel capacity, which has been slowly but steadily falling as coal plants shutter and renewables become more cost-competitive. All in all, the world added nearly 100 GW of new solar capacity last year (another record), plus about 50 GW of new wind power, which is similar to what was added in 2016.


If you need a visual, the Department of Energy figures 100 GW is enough to power 10 billion LED lightbulbs, or 130 million horses (as in horsepower), which, holy shit.

“This shows where we are heading, although the fact that renewables altogether are still far from providing the majority of electricity means that we still have a long way to go,” Nils Stieglitz, President of Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, said in a statement.

Indeed. The sobering reality behind these rosy numbers is that humanity still has a lot of work to do bringing renewables online and shuttering coal plants to limit global warming to the Paris Agreement target of 2 degrees Celsius.

What’s more, as this new report shows, all countries aren’t pulling their weight equally.


China is driving global progress on renewables. The country, which invested $86.5 billion in new solar capacity in 2017, brought a full 53 GW of the newly-installed solar power online. China invested heavily in other forms of renewable energy, too, spending a total of $126.6 billion, which was nearly half the total global investment in renewables of $279.8 billion.

Other developing economies like Mexico—home the world’s cheapest solar project as of last year—and Brazil also upped their investment in renewables last year. Collectively, developing nations accounted for 63 percent of new renewable investments in 2017.


But in the U.S.—the world’s second largest carbon emitter currently and the largest historically—investment in renewables fell six percent last year, to $40.5 billion. In the EU, it dropped 36 percent compared to 2016, with total investment clocking in at $40.9 billion in 2017. And that’s all a far cry from a high of $126 billion invested in 2011.

Overall, investment in renewables among developed nations dropped 19 percent last year, to just over $100 billion. The downturn can be explained in part by government subsidies drying up, higher borrowing costs, and greater uncertainty about future revenues, according to the report.


Steve Clemmer, head of energy research and analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Earther he wasn’t worried too much about the investment decline, which he said also reflects the fact that the cost of clean energy technology has dropped dramatically in recent years.


“The fact that the amount of installed capacity is increasing is more important in my mind,” he said.

Clemmer is, however, concerned about the Trump administration’s recent decision to slap tariffs on imported solar panels, which he said was already having a “chilling effect” on the U.S. solar industry. After years of steady growth, the Solar Industry Association projected the industry would lose some 23,000 jobs this year as a result.


“That’s very troubling to me,” Clemmer said.

While the long-term outlook still projects continued growth of the U.S. solar industry despite Trump’s policies, the bigger picture is we all need to be doing more to speed the shift to carbon-free energy. An analysis published by the International Energy Association last year found that to preserve a two-thirds chance of holding global warming below 2 degrees, renewables need to account for some 70 percent of global electricity generation by 2050.


Let’s hope China’s investment keeps up.