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Spreading renewables around the planet


4 min read

Head and shoulders photo of Steve Hodgson, Editor-at-Large, New Energy World Photo: S Hodgson
Steve Hodgson, Editor-at-Large, New Energy World

Photo: S Hodgson

In these days of rapid growth of renewable energy technologies, the geography of the global energy industry is itself also changing, writes New Energy World’s Editor-at-Large Steve Hodgson.

China is by far the global leader in offshore wind power today, with its 28 GW of generating capacity – more than double that of the next country. A block of five northern European countries, all bordering the North Sea, together rival China with another 29 GW (this data is from a new report from trade association RenewableUK).


So, just two regions totally dominate global offshore wind generation – the key electricity technology for the future. But this will surely not continue for ever.


In Europe, the UK and Germany are the biggest players, with nearly 14 GW and nearly 8 GW of operational capacity respectively, followed by the Netherlands (nearly 3 GW) and Denmark and Belgium, each with more than 2 GW. Even nuclear France currently operates half a gigawatt of offshore wind.


Alongside China, just two more Asian countries, Vietnam and Taiwan, make the RenewableUK list of significant wind farm operators. Yet many countries around the world with a coastline and some shallow seas to exploit have already made initial moves to develop their own offshore wind industries. The same report lists 38 of these, with the US, Brazil, South Korea and Australia all having sizable – tens of gigawatts each – offshore wind development ‘pipelines’. Offshore wind turbines are going to be seen in many more seas around the world.


The established operators all have plans for expansion as well, of course – the UK aims to achieve a huge 40 GW by 2030, plus a bit more from the less mature technology of floating turbines. Even late-to-the-game US has a 30 GW by 2030 goal – boosted by its new Inflation Reduction Act.


Dramatic, but even, growth
And renewable energy really is the most important game in town. The growth of new capacity, mainly solar and wind energy, will be dramatic – around 2,400 GW over the next five years globally, accounting for 90% of the total growth in electricity generation, according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA). Within three years, says the IEA, renewables will become the single largest electricity source, overtaking coal.


Indeed, largely driven by the global energy crisis, the world is due to see as much new renewable power installed in the next five years as it did in the last 20, predicts the IEA. And growth will be dominated by activity in Asia.


The growth of new capacity, mainly solar and wind energy, will be dramatic – around 2,400 GW over the next five years globally, accounting for 90% of the total growth in electricity generation.


However, this growth will be widely, but not necessarily fairly, distributed around the planet, according to the International Renewables Energy Agency (IRENA) in its latest report, which points to increasing disparities in the funding of renewables.


First, the global south gets a raw deal, says IRENA – around 70% of the world’s population, mostly living in emerging and developing countries, received just 15% of global investments in 2020. Put another way, investment per capita in the US was 179 times that of Sub-Saharan Africa. IRENA suggests that public funding needs to play a much larger part to attempt to address this.


Second, investment has been highly concentrated into solar and wind technologies – around 90% of the total in 2020. To best support the transition, more funds need to flow to less mature technologies, as well as to sectors beyond electricity such as cooling, heating and system integration, concludes IRENA.


From fossils to ambient energy
I saw another report about global power shifts last month, which contrasts the dominant positions of the established oil and gas companies of the past (and present) with what’s coming down the road in renewables.


It suggests that the power concentrated in traditional oil exporting countries ‘won’t simply vanish, but rather be replaced, and expanded upon, by countries which saturate their renewables market and export energy via cable, pipeline or hydrogen ships’. Likely renewables leaders that fully harness their enormous solar potential and become exporters, such as Australia and Chile, will become the new powerhouses, says Rethink Energy.


The report also namechecks Egypt, Mauritania, Kazakhstan and Oman as potential future renewables exporters. Some of today’s major petroleum producers of the Middle East may join them if they choose to exploit their solar potential.


Intriguing stuff. Renewables – sometimes referred to as ambient energy – are usually harnessed locally, close to the energy loads that they meet, reducing or eliminating the need to import old-style fuels from elsewhere. But significant export opportunities also open up to countries that happen to see a lot of wind or receive plenty of sunshine. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author only and are not necessarily given or endorsed by or on behalf of the Energy Institute.