Biggest renewables growth to 2023 will come from bioenergy – IEA

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You may think that recent and future growth in renewables is all about solar and wind but, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) latest report, bioenergy provided half of all renewable energy use in 2017 and will be the biggest growth area for renewables between 2018 and 2023.

What the IEA terms ‘modern bioenergy’ has a critical role in a robust renewables portfolio, according to the organisation’s
Renewables 2018 report. The report forecasts that renewables will continue on their pathway of rapid expansion, and will grow significantly over the next five years, accounting for 40% of global energy consumption growth.

It forecasts that the electricity sector will continue to see the most rapid growth in renewable technologies, and that renewables will account for 30% of total world electricity generation in 2023.

But, growth in renewables will be much less pronounced in the transport and heat sectors, according to the report – and this is where bioenergy has the advantage. Solar and wind power are largely confined to the electricity sector.

‘Modern bioenergy is the overlooked giant of the renewable energy field,’ said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. ‘Its share in the world’s total renewables consumption is about 50% today, in other words as much as hydro, wind, solar and all other renewables combined. We expect modern bioenergy will continue to lead the field, and has huge prospects for further growth. But the right policies and rigorous sustainability regulations will be essential to meet its full potential.’

On a regional level, China is forecast to surpass the European Union by 2023 to become the world’s largest consumer of renewable energy, led by support policies to promote renewable technologies to decarbonise its power sector and reduce air pollution.

By 2023 Brazil will have the largest share of renewables in its energy mix by far, says the IEA, with 45% of its final energy consumption coming from renewables – largely bioenergy and hydropower.

Solar PV continues to dominate in terms of renewable electricity capacity expansion by technology. In 2017, 178 GW of new renewables were added (two-thirds of total new electricity capacity), 97 GW of which was solar PV and half of which was in China. The IEA says that solar PV will expand by 600 GW by 2023 to reach 1 TW of installed capacity – a growth more than all other renewables combined and around twice the amount of Japan’s installed power capacity.

Meanwhile, wind power growth has slowed in recent years. Onshore wind additions declined for the second year in a row in 2017 but the IEA says that wind capacity will expand by 60% by 2023. Offshore wind capacity is expected to triple over the same timeframe, with growth ramping up outside of Europe – in Asia and North America. In total the world is expected to add over 1 TW of additional renewable capacity by 2023.

Despite this progress in the electricity sector the IEA says there is untapped potential for renewables in transport and industry and that expansion in electricity and transport could be 25% higher still. The IEA says that bioenergy growth in the industry, transport and electricity sectors to 2023 will match that forecast by wind and solar in the electricity sector.

The IEA categorises bioenergy as one of the ‘blind spots’ of the energy system which is often overlooked, and emphasises the importance of using sustainable bioenergy sources including wastes and residues.

However, bioenergy continues to be a contentious issue for some, with groups including the US’ Natural Resources Defence Council criticising the EU and the US government for pushing ahead with burning wood pellets for power.

The IEA’s report comes as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development announced to governments that renewables are now more often than not the cheapest energy source – as part of a message indicating that it has spent a total of €6bn on renewable energy projects.

The report was launched as
Birol indicated that the IEA’s preliminary data showed that carbon emissions from the energy sector increased in 2018 for the second year running, after two years of hiatus.

Graph: How renewables are pushing ahead in electricity but lagging in heat and particularly transport

Source: IEA

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