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Forward march

Renewable energy has proved its credentials. The coming year will only add more momentum to the global rollout

In 2016, renewables continued their relentless march across global energy markets, and 2017 will bring yet more momentum. The Paris Agreement of December 2015 offered another shot in the arm. But development sped along for other reasons too. The levelised cost for electricity - a measurement that compares different sources of generation - for solar-photovoltaic (PV) projects fell even faster in 2016 than in 2015: the title for "lowest-ever PV tariff" changed hands several times, with Dubai, America, Mexico, Abu Dhabi and Chile all vying hard. Newcomers like Saudi Arabia are now coming through the ranks.

Offshore wind made a step change, with record-low tariffs in Denmark and The Netherlands reflecting advances in technology, a decade of learning and lower capital costs.

And then there was the corporate interest, including from Big Oil. Total, Shell, Statoil, BP and Eni were among international oil companies to announce major new investments and initiatives. In short, 2016 was another breakthrough year for renewable energy, and 2017 will consolidate it.

Don't think the transition is in the bag, though. The shift to a lower-carbon energy system will falter if users aren't provided with reliable and cost-effective energy supplies. We believe that new renewable energy projects must be "system-aligned", meaning integrated into the market, and in 2017 stakeholders will search for the right solutions.

Thermal generation - coal and gas, for example - will keep a place in many systems. But what is clear now is that it is possible to accelerate the transition to a lower-carbon future thanks to the advances made recently.

If you have the resource and available land, then solar PV will soon become the dominant source of electricity to meet your daytime load. Solar PV can compete head-to-head with coal in most markets and is often cheaper than gas. But, of course, the sun only shines during the day and is seasonal, so you need more than just solar PV to meet the total load. As the cost of energy produced by solar PV falls the focus is shifting to how it can complement the overall energy system - we call this "Solar PV+".

It includes better batteries. Their use to store energy is now benefitting from lower input costs. Governments are trying to find ways to align the electricity system to make use of this storage.

The EU is undertaking an extensive review of its electricity market to facilitate the entry of batteries. The UK and California have launched large-scale procurements of electricity-storage services. Utilities are responding with their own initiatives such as AGL Energy's virtual power station in South Australia which involves 1,000 connected batteries installed in homes and businesses.

Expect next year also to see more pumped-storage hydro (PSH). It's not a new technology, but it will play a bigger part. Access to available water is key and we expect more countries will look at salt-water-based options due to competing uses for freshwater.

Politicians like PSH - it creates more jobs than installation of batteries will.

The hydrogen economy will get a major boost in 2017 too. Companies like Engie are promoting systems that combine solar with hydrogen storage in fuel cells to replace existing thermal generation.

The "Power to Ammonia" project in The Netherlands envisages using local renewable energy to create ammonia, which will then be used for power generation and sustainable fertiliser. Watch out, too, for hybrid renewable-energy systems, which will sprout up in 2017.

Hybrids come in many forms: PV/wind, hydro/PV, biomass/wind and even nuclear/wind. With the right conditions and design hybrids can provide systems with the reliability and responsiveness of a thermal-power plant. The potential is plain.

In hot and sunny places like South Africa, Morocco, Australia and Chile the combination of PV with concentrated-solar power (CSP) - should make economic sense. While large-scale CSP-tower technology is not fully proven, CSP should be able to provide even more storage capacity than batteries.

Lastly, don't ignore supergrids - in 2017, they'll be back. Late 2016 brought a surprise announcement from China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, which will conduct a joint feasibility study for a subsea electricity grid to facilitate the cross-border flows of renewable energy.

We believe that subsea supergrids which efficiently distribute energy from other renewable sources will be a key feature of the global energy system, just as gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas vessels deliver gas from far away sources to the consumer.

In sum, renewable energy has now broken through. The future is about deployment, at scale, and it will start in 2017.

This article is part of Outlook 2017, our annual book looking at energy market trends for the year ahead. To purchase a copy, click here

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