How much of our global power comes from alternative energy sources (i.e. wind, hydro, solar, etc.)? The truth is that we don’t know.
When I last looked at how much of our total global power came from alternative sources five years ago (yes, it’s been a while), the increase over the previous year was amazing (5%!). About a month ago, I decided it was way past time for a revisit. Given the large amount of alternative energy capacity that’s come online recently (an estimated 200,000 megawatts of capacity were added between 2012-2016 in solar photovoltaics alone) I was looking forward to some pretty impressive numbers.
So I went back to the World Bank (and U.N.) data source I’d used previously but quickly discovered that the numbers hadn’t really been updated (to 2012 for most countries, and 2013 or 2014 in a few cases). I noticed that the data was coming from the IEA (International Energy Agency). So I checked that out. But though they have an impressive set of data, there was still nothing more recent than 2014 and many countries’ data was missing altogether. (In one odd graphic they seem to be including “fuel wood” as a “renewable resource” putting many African countries high in “renewable’ energy but this isn’t a resource usually included when determining modern renewable use. Fortunately, this peculiar definition of “renewable” doesn’t seem to be reflected in the World Bank data. I know personally that Ugandans burn a lot of firewood for cooking – you can smell smoke almost wherever you go in the country but I wouldn’t count that as “renewable energy.”)
It seemed unreal that no one would have these numbers so I kept looking and checked:
- The U.S. Energy Information Agency (confusingly known as the EIA as opposed to the IEA mentioned above). Though their data is significant, it still wasn’t very recent. (And didn’t include wood which was a relief but didn’t include hydro.) Like the IEA, many smaller and poorer countries, especially islands, are not included which is surprising given that these places will most likely be more affected by climate change than many bigger wealthier countries. (Many island nations are already making impressive efforts toward reducing their carbon output some of which are detailed below.)
- Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) – (used as a resource by much of the financial industry). Their data seems to be coming at least partially from Climatescope (which draws from the IEA, EIA, and OECD) which focuses on 58 developed nations and they group entire developing regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa together and seem to almost discount them entirely.
- Thomson Reuters – They didn’t have much but they did have this interesting tidbit on North Korea’s interest in solar.
- IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) – Again not including many countries including those in the developing world and the data is from 2014 at the most recent (and largely drawn from the IEA).
- REN21 (USA) – Of all the organizations, REN21 seems to be trying the hardest to get accurate and complete data for what is actually happening in the world.
- The Energy Watch Group (Germany) (which also seemed to disagree with the IEA’s numbers and methodology)
- E&E News – including again how a small island nation (Aruba) might be pursuing alternative energies. But they are reliant on other sources for their data.
- BP – If you really want to know how an industry is doing, ask their competition…. no individual country numbers in their June 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy but they did report that in 2015, 213 terawatt-hours were added in renewable power generation, the largest increment on record.
- Other sites/sources checked include: The Solutions Project, a Stanford University study on how each country in the world could meet their energy needs 100% sustainably, Forum for the Future, Institute for Energy Research, and multiple pages within those websites.
- And Wikipedia which has a list of countries with their electricity production from renewable resources but the data is mainly from 2012.
Why aren’t these organizations updating their numbers? One factor could be the difficulty in gathering data, particularly solar, which is often residential and off-grid. (True story: The first people to embrace solar as an energy option were California marijuana growers who saw the off-grid potential and therefore nearly invisible ability to support their growing operations while eluding the unwanted attention of the authorities.) Another factor, when attempting to gather data from countries is that many of them may not have the personnel, technology, or interest in pulling together those figures. A third possibility is that whoever put together this data in the past is no longer doing so for some reason, possibly due to funding cutbacks or a lapse in leadership.
But I have to admit I was little surprised and even shocked. With all the modern technology available and the vast amount of data collected on everything from the minutes we sleep to micro-gravitational variations in sea level to precisely what item of clothing you just checked out on that website, how can we not have this information? Considering the planet-wide concern about global warming and the monumental efforts being employed to both study and combat it, how can we not know how much of our increasing energy pie is composed of that slice of alternative energy? I still have no idea.
But in the spirit of this blog I decided to find out what I could. (Note: my next blog post was going to be on solar energy (PV) so that’s why the focus is largely on solar.) Here’s just a little of what I’ve found:
- In 2015, 500,000 solar panels were installed every day. That’s approximately 182 million in just 2015. And production is increasing so we have no idea how many were installed in 2016 and now in 2017. (China was the leader – they have six out of the top ten biggest solar panel production companies – and also installed two new wind turbines every hour in 2015.)
- Part of the boom in solar installation was because of a steep drop in cost brought about through technological advances. In some parts of the U.S., prices dropped as much as 85%. Combined with government subsidies (that have since either been rescinded or are probably being put on the chopping block as we speak) this made getting solar in the U.S. a no-brainer. Solar installation in the U.S. rocketed.
- Africa is done waiting for its turn. A huge amount of off-grid solar is being installed across the continent and some innovative payment schemes are pushing this even faster.
- Aruba – In 2012, Aruba announced its intention to be at 100% renewable power by 2020. It was at 30% in May of 2016 and had reduced its heavy fuel oil dependence 40% over the previous 10 years. (Island nations are especially dependent on expensive heavy fuel oil, a fact which is pushing them towards alternatives even faster than many mainland countries.) The IEA has no figures at all on Aruba.
- Australia – In 2009, Australia’s alternative and nuclear energy measured 1.223% of total energy use. This more than doubled five years later to 2.481 in 2014. (IEA) Since 2014, at least ten (large – over 30kW capacity) solar power projects have been completed and brought online. Sixteen more have been commissioned several of which will be completed in 2017. Yet none of this is reflected in the IEA or EIA data as neither includes information beyond 2014.
- Bangladesh – (IEA – .3% of total energy is alternative – 2013) Ironically, the World Bank is leading a huge solar project to bring electricity to rural areas in Bangladesh but this progress is not reflected in the IEA numbers which the Bank uses in its calculations. They reported that in 2016, about 20,000 solar homes systems were being installed every month and so far, 3.9 million rural households and shops have been reached. Bangladesh now has the highest installation rate in the world. Much of this is off-grid, small, and residential but still, it’s hard to believe that Bangladesh’s alternative energy usage remains a paltry .3% of total energy consumed.
- Barbados – The local power company just brought a 42 acre solar panel (PV) plant online with a generating capacity of 10 megawatts, producing 20 gigawatt hours of energy annually, enough to power about 7,000 homes. In 2015, Barbados increased its capacity five-fold from 2013 when they reached 9 megawatts of power. A 20 megawatt solar farm is in the pipeline for 2017. But there’s no data on Barbados at all on either the EIA or IEA sites.
- Chile – Northern Chile has the highest potential for solar in the world specifically in the high-altitude Atacama desert and the country is taking advantage of this at an astonishing rate. Although the IEA (7.26% alternative of total electricity) and EIA figures are impressive, they still date from 2014 and, particularly in Chile’s case, are ridiculously out of date. Bloomberg News reported in June of 2016 that Chile was actually giving away solar-generated electricity for free because of overproduction. In 2015, installed capacity nearly doubled (from 362 MW to 750) over just the previous year. And this was with 2380 MW more in development. And that’s just solar. Chile also has substantial geothermal and wind energy resources and in 2014, the El Arrayan Wind Farm with 115 MW capacity opened. At the time it was the largest wind farm in Latin America. Yet none of this is reflected in the IEA or EIA data.
- At the beginning of 2015, Costa Rica managed to generate 100% of its electricity (mainly hydropower but with help from geothermal, solar, and wind) from renewables alone. The most recent data on the IEA site shows the country at 37% in 2013.
- Denmark – Denmark has so successfully harnessed its natural wind resources that on one day in July of 2015, wind power generated 140% of Denmark’s electricity demand and the excess was exported to Norway, German and Sweden. The country is still grappling with the technical challenges of energy storage and distribution but they are making progress and also refining and enhancing older technologies such as district heating. And islands off the coast are just not waiting – in one case at least, combining wind power with other simple efficiencies such as extra insulation in homes and using what solar power there is to vastly reduce their own costs.
- Egypt – In the Middle East, alternative energy is taking hold in surprising ways. Even Saudi Arabia is looking past oil and to a future with solar power.
- Germany – On one Sunday in May of 2016, renewables (solar, wind, water, and biomass) supplied nearly 100% of the country’s power demand for the first time. Germany has been aggressive in its pursuit of alternative energy under Chancellor Angela Merkel and their biggest challenge is not adding capacity but creating new storage systems and improving their grid within their own borders as well as with surrounding countries.
- Ghana – In April of 2016, a 20 megawatt solar voltaic project was connected to the grid with help from a Chinese company. In addition, a solar module manufacturing facility also opened up. This local production could help another much bigger (155 megawatt) project slated to begin construction in December 2017. (All this solar energy should also help the country balance out its erratic electricity supply which relies heavily on hydro generated from dams. The last few years have seen some problems as drought conditions have depleted the water supplies.)
- India – As a country without many oil and gas resources but with a huge poor and rural population, India might be expected to invest in alternative energies but didn’t really get going until recently. Now they’re really going for it and have set the hugely ambitious target of nearly 60% of their electricity capacity from non-fossil fuels by 2027. India has been using hydro in the form of dams for a while but that has been problematic at times due to both droughts and conflicts with neighbors. But their potential solar capacity is huge and though they are just beginning to tap into this, they are already running into issues with grid capacity and distribution. Last July, the sunny southern state of Tamil Nadu was unable to use all the solar power it generated. And Tamil Nadu has also had to curtail its wind power due to similar grid problems. If India can solve its storage and distribution problems, it will be well on its way to its admirably ambitious targets. None of this seems to be reflected in the IEA numbers which are from 2013.
- United States – The U.S. has brought a phenomenal amount of alternative energy capacity online in the last couple of years and California has led the way with solar energy generation growing an unbelievable 1378% over the previous five years up to till July 2016. In fact, solar is coming online so quickly that Hawaii and now California are having problems with aging grid infrastructure unable to deal with the glut of power as well as underestimation of the speed of solar uptake affecting utility companies’ ability to balance and plan power generation for the coming years.
- All over the world, non-profit organizations are bringing small-scale solar to remote poor communities in the form of cook stoves, light bulbs, and small arrays. I doubt that any of this is being taken into account but it should be because it’s massive when you add it all up.
The Case of the Missing Solar Numbers remains unsolved. Possibly, as the realization of how important this data is sinks in to whatever businesses, organizations, and countries are reliant on it, those numbers will magically show up again. I’ll be looking for them but I’ll also be just watching and enjoying how people all over the globe are quietly and steadily making our world a much better place one solar panel at a time.
What can we do?
If you own your home, get solar panels, use thermal solar heating, and take full advantage of the power of passive solar. (See this article for an extraordinary example of how passive solar can be used even in the Northeast.) The subsidies may not be around for very long but the price of solar panels is continuing to drop as the the technology gets better and better. Other positives include increased home value, power outages becoming a thing of the past, and yes, you are helping to save the planet.
But the biggest positive is a lower power bill. And, in some cases, this could be suspiciously lower. In a recent in-depth study, the L.A. Times found that, despite a huge surplus of power in California, residents are actually paying more than other states because utilities have built too many power plants in a poorly planned rush to avoid power outages. The taxpayers are footing the bill and I suspect, now that they’ve been outed, there may be a backlash against more building. (Yup, I was right.) In addition, Tesla has stepped up in a big way and is going full-throttle into the energy market breaking speed records for large battery storage installation for solar power. So, if you want to lower your bills, get control over your power supply, and not contribute to corporate greed, those could also be good reasons to go with solar energy.
Thanks for stopping by,