The global economy ran increasingly on renewables in 2020—that hot pace will continue

May 11, 2021, 12:01 PM UTC

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, wind turbines and solar panels are being attached to the grid at a spectacular pace.

Last year, new renewable energy capacity rose by 45% to 280 gigawatts—the largest year-on-year increase since 1999, according to the International Energy Agency.

Similar levels of growth are expected for this year and the next. The IEA’s latest forecasts predict that new capacity of 270GW will come online in 2021 and around 280GW in 2022. The figures represent upward revisions of around 25% from projections made in November.

The surge in capacity is underpinned by growth in China, Europe, and the U.S., where governments are auctioning record renewable energy capacity and companies are signing huge power purchase agreements for clean energy.

In total, 75GW of offshore and onshore wind, solar photovoltaic, and bioenergy capacity were auctioned last year—20% higher than in 2019. This allowed wind power to double over the past year and solar to go up by 50%.

“Wind and solar power are giving us more reasons to be optimistic about our climate goals as they break record after record,” said IEA executive director Fatih Birol.

He added that last year’s increase in renewable energy capacity accounted for 90% of the entire global power sector’s expansion.

Who’s leading the race?

China accounted for half of the new renewable energy capacity brought online in 2020 and will account for 45% this year and 58% in 2022. But while increasing green energy, China also discretely added 38.4GW of new coal-fired power capacity in 2020.

President Xi Jinping has pledged that China will become carbon neutral by 2060, however, the IEA also expects China’s renewable capacity to decline by one-quarter in 2021 from the previous year as the government phases out subsidies for wind and solar PV projects at the end of 2020.

Despite this, the IEA is confident demand for clean energy led by Europe and the U.S. will keep the global annual growth close to last year’s level.

The IEA’s latest forecasts do not take into account U.S. President Joe Biden’s pledge to cut the country’s emissions by half over the next 10 years. This move is expected to lead to even faster growth in renewables.

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