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Cleantech Sector Is Growing Fast, Yet Cost Drops Lead To Renewable Energy Investment Decline

Originally published on World Resources Institute.
By Letha Tawney, Bharath Jairaj and Xuege (Cathy) Lu 

have a sunny day_1

The United States, China, and Japan have been moving aggressively with solar photovoltaic (PV) installations. Photo credit: Activ Solar/Flickr

Investors worldwide spent less on renewable energy and related technologies—such as smart meters, electric vehicles, and storage—last year than in previous years. Global investments in renewable energy fell to $214 billion, down 14 percent from 2012. Venture capital investments in US-based cleantech companies fell 25 percent in 2013, according to Clean Edge’s latest report. And for the first time in a decade, China saw a decline in clean energy investment in 2013.

These isolated numbers make it appear as if the cleantech sector is on the decline. But take a deeper dive and it’s clear that there’s a much more complex story at play. In reality, renewable energy is on a strong growth path—and tools are emerging to push the sector even further.

Falling Renewable Energy Investments Actually Signal Progress

The recent fall in clean tech investments is partly driven by the fact that renewable energy has become much cheaper in the past few years. You can buy more energy output for less cash than you could have two or four years ago. At the 2014 Future of Energy Summit earlier this month, Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), said that roughly 80% of the reduced investment in clean energy over the last two years is due to these price reductions. Solar module prices, for example, have declined by about 80% since 2008. Increased competition among wind energy suppliers has also reduced prices. Research from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) finds that wind energy prices could drop from 10–30% further in the medium to long-term.

With the costs dropping substantially, growth in clean energy capacity remains at record highs. This is in spite of economic and policy turbulence in many countries. The United States, China, and Japan in particular have been moving aggressively with solar photovoltaic (PV) installations. China installed a whopping 12 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity—nearly triple the 4.5 GW deployed the year before. And the world’s total installed wind energy capacity grew by about 19 percent in 2012, followed by another 12.4 percent increase in 2013.

In short, the renewable energy industry is maturing—and investors are starting to take notice. Investors like Citigroup are becoming more optimistic in the industry, claiming that the “age of renewables” has begun. “Green bonds”—which direct investment towards environmentally friendly projects—are becoming more and more popular. Energy-smart technology firms, including Opower, are marching into the stock market. These are all indicators that renewables are stepping onto the mainstream financial scene.

A Coalition of Renewable Energy Interpreters

The scale and impacts of declining renewable energy costs is not widely understood. This is an example of how real industry trends can be hidden by the headlines. Admittedly, the rapidly changing renewable energy industry can be difficult to keep up with. Decision-makers need both insightful analysis and proactive communication channels to help them understand what’s really going on with renewable energy development—and push this sector further faster.

Several organizations are starting to realize the importance of making sure that facts about renewable energy are fully examined, explained, and widely shared. For example, WRI recently joined with IRENA, IEA-RETP, Greenpeace, ACORE, WWF International and 36 leading renewable energy players to establish a “Coalition for Action to Bolster Public Support for Renewable Energy.” This Coalition, which includes think tanks, environmental NGOs, and leading renewable energy companies, will provide fact-based information to address questions and concerns about renewable energy technologies and help support the growth of the industry worldwide. The Coalition will host a knowledge platform to share the latest news, information, lessons, and training opportunities in the renewable energy sector.

As part of the coalition, WRI is producing evidence-based research, fact sheets, and tools on renewable energy through its Charge initiative. For example, our 10 Questions to Ask about Scaling On-Grid Renewable Energy paper raises the key questions decision makers need to answer in order to create a stable policy environment that will support the growth of grid-based renewable energy. Our Above and Beyond paper explores how utilities can use “green tariffs” to provide cost-competitive renewable energy to corporate customers. And forthcoming factsheets will help decision makers makes sense of the electricity cost data they encounter.

The Charge initiative at WRI and the IRENA Coalition can start to clear up some of the confusion surrounding renewable energy costs. However, truly moving toward a world where all communities have access to affordable, clean energy will require a greater effort. Decision-makers from government, business, and the electricity sector will need to use all tools at their disposal to look past the headlines and capitalize on the emerging opportunities presented by a rapidly changing renewable sector.

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