Developing countries are the new leaders in renewables

Published on Wednesday, 16 January 2019

By Andrea Bertaglio

The greenest countries of 2017

What are the countries that recorded the biggest growth in renewables on their energy portfolio? According to Climatescope, who performs its surveys by allocating specific scores, the greenest of them all in 2017 was no other than Chile.

“The Latin American country excelled in all of the three indicators monitored by Climatescope – as outlined by BNEF’s researchers – like the soundness of its energy policies, the acquired experience in managing clean energy investments and a lasting commitment on decarbonization regardless of power network limitations”.

India, Jordan, Brazil and Rwanda are all trailing Chile in the Climatescope ranking as China seems to come out as the biggest loser. The Asian powerhouse slumped from last year’s top spot to a disappointing seventh place.

The main cause of this radical shift is to be seen in the sheer quantity of new renewable projects put in the pipeline by these developing countries.

Putting things into perspective, 2017 saw 54 developing countries invest in at least one wind farm, while 76 of them financed the construction of solar parks generating 1.5 MW or more: this is respectively 20 and 3 times more compared with 2007.

Paying the bill for this green bonanza was taken care by banks, export credit agencies and on a bigger share by utilities, as the report authors are keen to point out: “European utilities were aggressively financing new projects, especially in the Latin American market”, as explained by Ethan Zindler, one of the founding members of Climatescope and now Head of BNEF in the American continent. “Proof is that Enel alone, as documented in the report, splashed out a 7.2 billion dollar check to build its South American renewable infrastructure”.  
 

A technological revolution

Europe is emerging as a constant in the renewable world since many of the technologies at its core are engineered in the old continent.

“The renewable business is essentially a European business”, as outlined by Enel Green Power’s CEO Antonio Cammisecra in the #Renewables4All event held in Rome during the company’s tenth anniversary. “By analyzing the production chain of renewables, one can’t fail to notice how, photovoltaic modules aside, fundamental components like trackers, inverters, wind turbines, transformers and other tech are all built in Europe and this is especially true for wind energy. But above all, there’s a strong drive for innovation coming from Europe, together with the US and Australia”.

According to the BNEF, what set forth the overtaking of green energy over fossil energy in developing countries was not only the abundance of renewable sources in some of the areas under scrutiny, but most of all, the economic competitiveness of wind and solar energy that no longer have to rely on subsidies.

This is a virtuous cycle with strong ties to coal’s simultaneous demise, testified by the lowest amount of installed capacity recorded in 100 countries since 2006: 48 GW. It represents a 38% drop, even more impressive considering the peak was reached in 2015 at 97 GW.

Anyway, this doesn’t mean that coal is relegated to history books. Quite the contrary as many governments still have no short-term plans to make do without an energy source that still very much guarantees access to electricity for tens of millions of people, notwithstanding its rising costs compared to cleaner alternatives and its devastating impact on the global environment.
 

Not all choices have an equal impact

Coal’s decline is a step in the right direction but its definitive phase-out from the global energy system seems still like a far fetched proposition.

If, on one hand, new installed capacity in coal has dropped at the lowest level in a decade, on the other we cannot underestimate how the actual energy generated by coal-powered plants “has risen 4% on a yearly basis to 6.4 TWh”, as the Climatescope 2018 report shows.

As a further matter of concern, despite the overwhelming facts that substantiate the economic convenience of renewables over new coal-powered plants, according to data from Coalswarm, the latter are currently being constructed in many developing countries for a total capacity of 193 GW. “About 86% of this new capacity will come from China, India, Indonesia and South Africa”.

In fact, both China and India are still heavily reliant on coal and lignite, since these energy sources account respectively for two thirds and three quarters of their energy requirements.

It’s no news that when these behemoths come into play, their numbers are massive: “When combined, Asia’s giants have added 432 GW in new coal capacity in the 2010-2017 time-frame (by comparison, the entire United States have “only” 260 GW-worth of coal capacity powering their network)”, as specified by the BNEF research team: “When faced with strong public pressure to expand access to energy for more Indian citizens and to keep energy costs in check for the Chinese populace, their respective governments will be reluctant to turn the plug off these new power plants. No less than 81% of the total coal capacity from developing countries comes from these two countries.”

Clean energy faces the long-term challenge to keep global CO2 emissions in check and this match is still very much open. The path its currently blazing seems a promising one but there’s a long way to go before a zero-emission global energy system can become a reality. Hence, the full development of renewable energy is still at chapter one.