Renewable energy sources supplied 16.7 percent of global energy consumption in 2011, but the $257 billion of investment in the sector was still 15 percent lower than into fossil power generation, two influential bodies reported on Monday.
The investments were a 17 percent increase on the previous year and 94 percent higher than in 2007, the year before the beginning of the financial crisis.
By the end of 2011, total renewable power capacity worldwide exceeded 1,360 gigawatts (GW), up 8 percent on 2010, said two reports published jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21).
Coal remains the world's top fuel for power generation, followed by natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
The reports said that solar power generation had overtaken wind as the prime renewable energy source, attracting nearly twice as much investment in 2011. Total investment in solar power jumped 52 percent to $147 billion.
"Despite the continuing economic crisis in some key markets, and continuing political uncertainties, more renewable energy was installed last year than ever before," said Mohamed El-Ashry, chairman of REN21.
"Renewables comprised more than 25 percent of total global power-generating capacity (estimated at 5,360 GW in 2011) and supplied an estimated 20.3 percent of global electricity."
El-Ashry said that the growth of the renewables sector had also been spurred by the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in Japan and by improvements in renewable-energy costs and technologies.
"As a result, renewable energy is spreading to more countries and regions of the globe," he said.
The reports said that about 50 countries installed wind power capacity in 2011 and that solar power generation capacity had moved into new regions and countries, resulting in more than 200 million households using solar hot water collectors, and that interest in geothermal power had taken hold in East Africa.
At least 118 countries had renewable energy targets in place by early 2012, up from 96 a year before, though a drop in policy support in developed nations was seen as a result of austerity pressures in Europe and a legislative deadlock in the U.S. Congress.
FOSSIL FUEL INVESTMENT STILL BIGGER
Despite this growth, renewable power, excluding large hydroelectric, accounted for less than half (44 percent) of all new electricity generating capacity added worldwide in 2011. The additions accounted for only 31 percent of actual new power generated, owing to lower capacity factors for solar and wind as a result of unfavorable weather conditions, the reports said.
The overall $257 billion that went into renewables — $237 billion of which went into green power capacity — still lagged behind gross investment in fossil-fuel capacity in 2011, which stood at $302 billion.
The reports said that in terms of total investment, the top seven countries for renewable electricity capacity (excluding large hydro) were China, the United States, Germany, Spain, Italy, India and Japan, accounting for 70 percent of total non-hydro renewable capacity worldwide.
"By region, the EU was home to nearly 37 percent of global non-hydro renewable capacity at the end of 2011; China, India and Brazil accounted for roughly one quarter."
RISING COMPETITION, WANING SUPPORT
Despite the additional investments, the reports said that share prices in the renewable energy sector had performed poorly in 2011 in the face of overcapacity in the solar and wind manufacturing chains and investor unease about the direction of support policies in both Europe and North America.
The reports also said that competitive challenges intensified in the sector, leading to sharp drops in material and component prices, especially in the solar market. While this benefited buyers, the price drops had damaged manufacturers in the sector.
"Renewables are starting to have a very consequential impact on energy supply, but we're also witnessing many classic symptoms of rapid sectoral growth — big successes, painful bankruptcies, international trade disputes and more," Udo Steffens, President of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, which collaborates with UNEP, said.
Faced with plunging green energy technology prices and economic austerity measures, many governments sharply reduced subsidies for renewables and allowed other support schemes to expire, the reports said, resulting in a succession of company failures and factory closures in 2011/12, including five significant solar manufacturers in the United States and Germany.
"This is an important moment for strategic policymaking as winners in the new economy form and solidify," Steffens added.
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