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Renewables scale the heights of power

Electricity generated from renewable energy will soar over the next five years with wind and solar leading the charge

Renewable energy is set to be the fastest-growing source of electricity generation over the next five years as lower costs and strong government support to decarbonise the power sector will promote surging capacity additions.

Global renewable electricity capacity will increase by 826 gigawatts between now and 2021 reaching 2,795GW, according to the International Energy Agency's (IEA) Medium-Term Renewables Market Report . That rise of 42% will push the share of renewables in the global power generating mix from 23% in 2015, up to 28% in 2021. Renewables will provide over 60% of the growth in total global electricity generation over the next five years.

Lower costs and more efficient technology will help renewables to expand into the power sector while government policies to curb air pollution and improve energy security by diversifying sources of power will also drive increases.

Capacity additions for solar photovoltaics (PV) and onshore wind will account for 75% of the increase in global renewable electricity capacity over the next five years while growth in hydropower will slow because of fewer large-scale conventional projects being commissioned in China and Brazil.

China alone will account for almost 40% of the increase in renewable capacity between now and 2021, the IEA says, driven by efforts to curb air pollution.

China's renewable electricity generating capacity will reach 807GW, up from 502GW last year. More than one-third of the global cumulative solar PV and onshore wind capacity will be located in China.

Air pollution kills 6.5m people every year and is more deadly than HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis and road injuries combined, according to the IEA. Energy production and inefficient or unregulated use of energy are the biggest culprits and the problem is only going to get worse.

But more than half of the 6.5m deaths from air pollution every year occur because of indoor air pollution. Around 2.7bn people, mainly living in poverty in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, burn wood, other solid fuels and kerosene for cooking and lighting.

Renewable energy power generating capacity will also surge in the US where federal tax incentives supported by the country's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) policies has made onshore wind and solar PV much more cost-competitive.

Between now and 2021, renewable electricity generation capacity in the US will rise by around 7% per year, helping it to become the second largest market for renewable energy generation in the world, after China, by then. In 2021, the US will have 328GW of renewable energy power generating capacity installed, the IEA said, up from 221GW in 2015.

The RPS is a set of US government policies designed to increase power generation from renewable energy sources. These policies require or encourage electricity producers within a given jurisdiction to supply a certain minimum share of their electricity from designated renewable energy sources including wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and some types of hydroelectricity.

India's renewable electricity generating capacity is also expected to surge, rising by over 11% per year between now and 2021, reaching 158GW by then. That is up from 82GW installed last year.

The IEA said India's solar PV capacity will increase eight-fold between now and 2021, driven by ambitious government targets to boost renewables' overall share coupled with competitive auctions.

Europe drags its heels

Growth in Europe however will be sluggish compared to Asia and the US. Installed capacity across the continent will rise by around 3.5% per year, reaching 637GW by 2021. That's up from 517GW installed last year.

Weak electricity demand growth and uncertainty over European Union legislation and governance of emissions reduction targets will all pressure Europe's ability to decarbonise its power sector between now and 2021, the IEA said.

Last year growth in renewable electricity capacity surged to an all-time high of 153GW, boosted by record additions in both onshore wind (63GW) and solar PV (49GW).

In 2015, renewables accounted for more than half of the net annual additions to power generating capacity for the first time, the IEA said, overtaking coal.

Last year's surge in renewable power generation was helped by falling costs for both onshore wind and solar plants falling to between $30/megawatt hours (MWh) and $50/MWh.

The IEA expects onshore wind generation costs will fall by a further 15% by 2021, while utility-scale solar PV costs will plunge by a quarter.

Costs for large-scale offshore wind projects could also fall by between 40% and 50% for new plants.

Climate pledges off track

However, the IEA says only forecast capacity additions for onshore wind and solar PV are on track with efforts to limit global temperature rises to within 2 degrees Celsius.

Achieving pledges made at the COP21 climate talks in December 2015, to keep global temperature increases to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, will need greater efforts to decarbonise the power, transport and heat sectors.

Increasing the use of renewable power generation in the heat sector will be a particular challenge, the IEA said, because heat accounts for more than half of global final energy consumption and is still mainly supplied by fossil fuels.

Renewables provide just under 9% of heat demand globally. This is expected to rise by around 21% between now and 2021 with bioenergy, solar, thermal and geothermal making the biggest contributions. China, the EU, North America and India will drive growth. But because global heat demand will grow over the next five years, the proportion provided by renewables will rise by just 1% over that period, reaching just over 10%.

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