Despite the pandemic, the growth rate in the world's renewable energy capacity jumped 45% in 2020, part of "an unprecedented boom" in wind and solar energy, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency. It's the largest annual rate of increase since 1999.
"An exceptional 90% rise in global wind capacity additions led the expansion," the report states. It also cites a 23% expansion in new solar power installations.
In 2020, renewable power was "the only energy source for which demand increased ... while consumption of all other fuels declined," says the IEA, whose mission is to make the world's energy supply more reliable, affordable and sustainable.
The IEA predicts large capacity gains in renewable energy will become the "new normal" in 2021 and 2022, with increases similar to 2020's record total.
An unprecedented amount of renewable power came online in the fourth quarter of 2020, the report states. China alone added more than 92 gigawatts of capacity – more than triple the amount it added in the fourth quarter of 2019. The U.S. added 19 gigawatts, a sharp gain over the 13.7 it added in the same quarter of the previous year.
Despite the gains in renewable energy, experts warn that a "substantial gap" persists between emissions from continued fossil fuel use and the lower levels needed to meet temperature limits in the Paris Agreement on climate change by the end of the decade.
"A massive expansion of clean electricity is crucial to enable the world to reach its net zero goals," IEA head Fatih Birol said on Tuesday, calling on governments to build on the momentum of the past year to invest more in solar, wind and other renewables, along with bolstering their electrical grid infrastructures.
Global coal consumption of coal, a key source of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change, fell by 4% in 2020 – the biggest drop since World War II, the IEA said earlier this year. But demand has been building anew since late last year, driven by Asia's economies that were among the first to start bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another factor: even as China invests in "green" energy, the country has also continued to build new coal power plants. China is responsible for about a third of the world's annual coal consumption – and it's expected to hit a new record high in 2021, the IEA said in April.
The U.S. relies on coal-fired power plants for about 20% of its electricity generating capacity, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, citing figures from the end of 2020. The largest share of the country's power comes from natural gas-fired plants, which account for 43% of U.S. capacity, the agency says.
The IEA says it revised its U.S. renewable energy forecast after Congress extended federal tax credits for solar and wind projects, as part of the spending bill lawmakers approved in late 2020.
The sector could rise further if Congress passes legislation that is based on President Biden's infrastructure plan, the Paris-based agency says.
The U.S. approved a large offshore wind project on Tuesday, advancing a plan to build a turbine installation some 12 nautical miles offshore from Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The 800-megawatt project would produce enough electricity to power 400,000 homes and businesses, the Biden administration says.
The IEA's Renewable Energy Market Update identifies several countries as driving the phenomenal growth in renewable energy last year, including China, the U.S. and Vietnam. All three countries were facing policy deadlines that spurred renewable energy projects to completion.
For the first time, China accounted for 50% of the world's growth in renewable energy capacity, the report says. The country is expected to add slightly less renewable power capacity in 2021, as it phases out some subsidies for wind and solar projects.
Despite those changes, solar energy development "will continue to break records," the IEA says, predicting that annual capacity additions will hit 162 gigawatts by the end of next year – almost 50% higher than the solar capacity gains in the pre-pandemic era of 2019.
Renewable energy sources "are expected to account for 90% of total global power capacity increases" this year and next, according to the agency, citing support from government policies and investments.
The Paris-based IEA was founded during the energy crisis of the early 1970s. It has 30 members, including the U.S., along with eight "association countries," such as China and India.
Correction: May 13, 2021 12:00 am — The original version of this story incorrectly said global renewable energy capacity increased 45% in 2020. The 45% increase was in the annual rate of increase of global renewable energy capacity.