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7 Interesting Global Renewable Energy Trends From NREL (Charts Galore!)

The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s 2013 Renewable Energy Data Book provides insight into dozens of global energy trends. Here are 7 to watch.

Accurately assessing renewable energy growth, especially compared to fossil fuels, is one of the biggest challenges facing our clean energy transition. After all, how can you measure progress without adequate benchmarks?

Industry tallies and analyst updates provide the quickest summaries, but they’re either piecemeal or criticized for being slanted. Government data is more reputable and comprehensive, but often lags behind – case in point the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) 2013 Renewable Energy Data Book.

Most of the trends highlighted in NREL’s data are already known, but still this is among the most comprehensive resources available and many of the charts within are incredible reference points. The full report is definitely worth reading, but since most people don’t have time to read through 135 pages, I’ve pulled a few of the most impressive statistics and charts for you.


American Renewable Energy Grows, But Unevenly

NREL reports renewable energy represented 61% of all new U.S. electricity capacity installations in 2013 to reach 14.8% of total electric capacity and 13.1% of actual power generation. Good stuff, considering renewables were just 9.5% of total generation in 2004, but that growth may slip a bit as renewables only represented 41% of new capacity additions across the first three quarters of 2014.

Still, compare renewable energy capacity and generation increases from 2000-2006 to 2007-2013, and it’s clear just how much momentum and traction renewables are generating across the U.S.

It’s also worth noting where America’s renewable growth exists. Saying wind and solar are growing fast (more on that later) isn’t news, but seeing those two compared to other technologies like hydropower or geothermal underscores where the action’s at for U.S. renewables. Wind and solar are expanding rapidly while other technologies essentially stay flat.

Renewables Are Nearly A Quarter Of Global Power

Here are two stats to bookmark – cumulative installed global renewable electricity capacity grew 108% from 2000 to 2013, and contributed 23% of all global power generation in 2013.

Again, wind and solar grew fastest among all renewable energy technologies. Wind generation grew by a factor of 18 while solar grew by a factor of 68 between 2000 and 2013. The same trend is apparent worldwide as in America – while hydropower remains the largest source of renewable energy, it’s staying flat.

How High Can Wind Power Soar?

Time for another common theme in NREL’s stats: China is crushing it on wind energy additions. At the end of 2013, China had 91.4GW of cumulative wind power capacity, America 61.1GW, Spain 23GW, India 20.2GW, and a host of others in the 5-10GW range.

If that sounds like a big lead now, consider China added another 20.7GW of wind power in 2014 while America installed just 4.7GW, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). This yawning gap may narrow a bit in 2015, considering 13.6GW of new wind was under construction in America as of October 2014, but China could set another record this year with 20-23GW new installed wind capacity. 

Solar Growing Faster Than NREL Can Track

The lag time from industry assessments to government reports is most evident with solar power. NREL reports U.S. solar photovoltaic installed capacity jumped from 7.3GW in 2012 to 12.1GW in 2013, and solar’s growth over time looks truly exponential, but it’s still growing. Just under 4GW new solar PV came online in the U.S. through third quarter 2014, meaning another exponential jump is on the way.

Even so, America lags in global solar capacity. NREL ranks Germany as the world’s undisputed solar leader with 35.9GW at the end of 2013, but that number only rose to 38.1MW through October 2014, while China and Japan are gaining fast. NREL ranked China second overall with 19.9GW and Japan fourth overall with 13.6GW at the end of 2013, but BNEF forecast 13-14GW new solar in China and 9-11GW new solar in Japan during 2014.

NREL’s data also highlights Asia’s complete dominance in solar manufacturing. Asian nations led all markets with a whopping 86% of the world’s 40GW total PV module production at the end of 2013, and China represented 64% of global production. Europe and America check in at 9% and 2% respectively – still wonder why solar trade wars are raging across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans?

America Has A Long Way To Go On Energy Efficiency

We’ve long known buildings are the largest energy consumers in America, and NREL’s data once again reminds us of the potential for energy efficiency to cut demand and emissions. U.S. buildings consumed 40.1% of national energy supply in 2013, with residential buildings just a bit higher than commercial buildings.

Now here’s the interesting part of NREL’s data:. 52.1% of commercial energy consumption and 46% of residential energy consumption in 2013 was due to electrical system energy losses – roughly half of U.S. power demand is wasted! NREL doesn’t strictly define this term, but it generally refers to losses as electricity moves across power lines. Not only is this a huge opportunity for smart grid technologies, but it’s also a powerful reason to shift toward distributed generation away from centralized power supplies.

Biofuels Dominate Alternative Fuel Consumption

America led worldwide biofuels production (13.3 billion gallons ethanol, 1.8 billion gallons biodiesel) in 2013, more than twice Brazil’s output (6.2 billion gallons ethanol, 766 million gallons biodiesel), so it makes sense biofuels would also dominate U.S. alternative fuel consumption.

But while renewable and alternative fuels (including electric vehicles) are growing fast, they’re still minuscule compared to petroleum-based fuels. America’s fuel consumption is at the same time a daunting challenge and a massive opportunity for clean energy technologies.

Wait, Why Are We So Excited About Fuel Cells?

Fuel cell vehicles have dominated recent headlines, but NREL’s data is a sobering look at how hydrogen and fuel cells are actually deploying across the global energy system. Stationary fuel cells, used primarily for backup power, grew 25% in 2013 but still only totaled 160MW of installed capacity in 1,137 total systems.

Fuel cell vehicles are an even smaller piece of this pie. NREL shows transportation fuel cell system capacity holding flat even as stationary fuel cell system capacities have surged in volume. This lack of growth is clearly shown by the number of operational U.S. hydrogen fueling stations – just 53 through December 2013.

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