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Global renewable energy investments continue to grow

Emerging from the global economic recession, investments in renewable energy technologies continued their steady rise in 2011, with total new investments in renewable power and fuels (excluding large hydropower and solar hot water) reaching $257bn, up from $220bn in 2010.

In a year marked by falling costs for renewable energy technologies, net investment in renewable power capacity was $40bn greater than investment in fossil fuel capacity, according to new research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute's Climate and Energy programme for the Institute's Vital Signs Online service.

Total renewable energy investments in industrial countries in 2011 accounted for 65% of global investment, increasing 21% to $168bn overall. In contrast, the 35% of global new investment that went to developing countries increased 10%, to $89bn. Of that sum, China, India, and Brazil accounted for $71bn in total investment. Investment in India grew 62% - the highest growth rate for any single country over 2010 totals.

In 2011, "financial new investment" in renewable energy installations (a category that excludes small-scale projects and R&D) in industrial countries outpaced investments in the developing world, but in 2010 investments in this category in developing countries had surpassed those in industrial countries for the first time, according to the report, Continued Growth in Renewable Energy Investments.

Solar domination grows 

A major development in 2011 was the dominance of solar power in technology-specific investments - driven by a 50% reduction in price over the year - with $147.4bn invested in solar compared with $83.8bn for wind projects and $10.6bn for biomass and waste-to-energy technology. “Although this was not the first time solar surpassed wind in total investment, it was the first time that this involved such a wide margin,” says the report.

Biofuels, which as recently as 2006 held the second overall ranking in renewable energy technologies, attracted the fourth highest total investment in 2011 at $6.8bn, followed by $5.8bn for small hydro and $2.9bn for geothermal installations, it adds. Marine energy technologies received only $200mn, as they have not yet been commercially deployed.

Country rankings

China attracted $52.2bn in new investments in 2011, the largest sum of any country. This accounted for nearly 60% of the total new investments in developing countries and more than 20% of the global total. In terms of the pace of growth, however, the United States scored an impressive 57% growth in investment over 2010 levels, outpacing all countries except India's 62%. Overall, the United States ranks second in total national renewable energy investment at $50.8bn, followed by Germany at $31bn.

The International Energy Agency projects that 90% of the growth in global energy demand during the next 25 years will come from developing countries. Investments in renewable energy already constitute the major part of "climate finance" funds designed to help developing countries meet development challenges. Significant new investment in cleaner sources of energy will be required to reduce the share of fossil fuels in the world's total primary energy consumption in order to keep greenhouse gas emissions low enough to maintain the global temperature change within a 2-degrees-Celsius warming scenario. According to IEA estimates, $48bn per year is needed to provide universal modern electricity access by 2030.

"Renewable energy technologies can enhance access to reliable, affordable, and clean modern energy services," said Evan Musolino, Climate and Energy Research Associate and report co-author. "They are particularly well suited for remote rural populations, and in many instances they can provide the lowest-cost option for energy access. For these potentials to be met, new investment in the sector is essential."

Further highlights from the report:

  • Driven by 52% growth, solar technologies led all renewable energy investment by technology, taking over the top spot previously held by the wind sector.

  • Investments in small-scale distributed generation power projects (with capacities of less than 1 megawatt) grew by 25% to $75.8bn in 2011.

  • Total R&D investment in renewable energy technologies fell 16% to $8.3bn in 2011; investments in venture capital and private equity fell by 6% to $5bn in 2011; while asset financing - an indicator of current sector activity - amounted to $164bn in 2011, an increase from $139bn in 2010.

Initial trends from the first two quarters of 2012 indicate that investment in the renewables sector has fallen behind the impressive pace set last year however, the report adds.

A recent report from Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas, produced by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, also confirms that investment in renewables is outpacing investments in fossil fuels, as we report in our September/October issue of Renewable Energy Focus, due out shortly. However, as various articles in the issue highlight, investor confidence needs a significant boost for that trend to continue - to find out more make sure you subscribe here to secure your copy of the issue.

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