Photovoltaics (PV) were the leading technology installed globally for new power generation, representing 45% of the capacity added in 2019, according to a report from BloombergNEF (BNEF), and was the most popular technology deployed in a third of countries.
An estimated $3.40 trillion will be invested in renewable energy during the 2020s, including $2.72 trillion in wind and solar, according to a Frost & Sullivan’s analysis.
"The 2020’s are the 'Solar-Plus' decade, we’re going to see a significant expansion of solar plus storage over the next 10 years," Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) said.
BNEF's report highlights the rise of solar energy in the past decade, from just 43.7 GW of total capacity installed in 2010 to 651 GW as of year-end 2019. Solar moved past wind — at 644 GW — in 2019, becoming the fourth largest source of power on a capacity basis, behind coal, gas, and hydro, according to BNEF.
Both BNEF and Frost & Sullivan reported an accelerating deployment of solar-powered generation, a trend that environmentalists and industry groups also have observed.
"In the global race for the least-cost supply for electricity, solar is winning and everyone can see that it’s winning," John Coequyt, director of the Sierra Club's federal and international climate campaign, said. The transition is happening quickly in the United States with a large build out of solar capacity, according to Coequyt.
"All over the country, you see utility companies that had almost no solar in their plans now have hundreds of megawatts and gigawatts of solar in their plans," he said.
While the overall generation share of renewables is still quite low, renewables are gaining momentum, Frost & Sullivan Senior Industry Analyst Vasanth Krishnan said in an email.
"The momentum behind renewables will continue to remain positive due to lowering equipment costs leading to competitive levelized cost margins," Krishnan said.
"For conventional power utilities, the momentum behind renewables will lead to a shift in plant operation profiles," Krishnan continued, "For owners of renewable power plants, market opportunities will continue to be positive due to falling coal capacity and volatile gas prices and rising demand for power."
BNEF also noted a global increase in coal capacity, surging 32% over the past decade to reach 2.1 terrawatts in 2019. The 2010s saw 691 GW of coal capacity added in emerging markets and 113 GW of net coal retirements in developed countries.
Consulting firm Frost & Sullivan also has seen a global increase in coal capacity, Krishnan said, with most of that capacity added in China, India, and the rest of Asia. Frost & Sullivan expects the addition of coal generation to continue for at least another four to five years in Asia even as coal plant utilization declines, according to Krishnan. "This is resulting in declining profit margins for coal power plant operators," he said.
"Coal is on its way out, but, unfortunately, not everyone realizes it," Nathanael Greene, a senior renewable energy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said in an email.
"It’s telling that the growth in new coal plants is mostly in developing countries and is funded by developed countries," Greene continued, "Banks and governments in rich countries are pushing dirty old coal technology on poorer countries."
"We have seen in the U.S. and Europe, these coal plants are soon going to be white elephants," Greene said.
U.S. utilities are retiring aging coal plants rather than having to deal with the associated permitting and public health issues, according to the Sierra Club’s Coequyt. However, the transition to clean energy sources involves long-term plans to make infrastructure changes.
U.S. utilities are choosing renewable sources both because customers insist on cleaner energy and it’s less expensive and easier to do so, according to NRDC’s Greene.
The demand for cleaner energy sources is coming from residential customers and corporate customers buying wind or solar power for their own operations, according to SEIA’s Gallagher. Gallagher pointed out that utilities don’t profit from purchasing fuel, so "there’s a profit motive for utilities to own new solar projects."
"The three D’s – Decarbonization, Decentralization, and Digitalization – in tandem with the adoption of new energy business models are the major four factors that will drive the future of the global power sector," Frost & Sullivan’s Krishnan said.