Old critiques, die hard. For the longest time, renewable energy (RE) has been viewed as too expensive and un-scalable, as a luxury energy source, that will not be deployed in developing countries. As a matter of fact, how many times did you hear the criticism, that by diverting investment away from so-called “cheap” fossil fuel energy, we would be depriving developing countries of their right to develop?
The numbers quantifying investments in RE are in! It should be no surprise that RE investment is increasing significantly and the developing world, especially China, is leading the way.
The findings of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investments 2016 confirmed that RE set new records in 2015 for dollar investments, the amount of new capacity added and the relative importance of developing countries in the context of that growth.
Record-breaking uptrend in Renewable Energy Investments
Global investment in RE rose 5% to $285.9 billion from 2014 to 2015, breaking the previous record of $278.5 billion reached in 2011 (FYI that’s double the dollar allocations to new coal and gas generation, which was an estimated $130 billion in 2015) when the famous ‘green stimulus’ programs in German and Italian were in full throttle. The figure below shows that the 2015 investment increased sixfold since 2004 and that investment in RE has not been below $230b since 2010.
GLOBAL NEW INVESTMENT IN RE BY ASSET CLASS, 2004-2015, $BN
*Asset finance volume adjusts for re-invested equity. Total values include estimates for undisclosed deals.
Over the course of the 12 years shown in the chart, the cumulative RE investment has reached $2.3 trillion.
Moreover, in 2015 some 134GW of RE excluding large hydro were commissioned, equivalent to some 53.6% of all power generation capacity completed in that year – and this is worth mentioning because it is the first time it has represented a majority. Of the renewables total, wind accounted for 62GW installed, and solar photovoltaics 56GW, highest ever figure and sharply up from their 2014 additions of 49GW and 45GW respectively.
Developing Countries Leading the Way
The investment which led to record-breaking levels came from China, which lifted its investment by 17% to $102.9 billion, about 36% of the global total. In the Middle East and Africa, investment was up a total of 58% at $12.5 billion, helped by project development in especially in South Africa and Morocco; and in India, up 22% at $10.2 billion.
More significantly, 2015 was the first year in which investment in RE (excluding large hydro) was higher in developing economies than in developed countries. The figure below shows that the developing world invested $156 billion last year, some 19% up on 2014 and a remarkable 17 times the equivalent figure for 2004, of $9 billion.
INVESTMENT IN RE: DEVELOPED/ DEVELOPING COUNTRIES, 2004-2015, $BN
The key contributors to this shift from developed to developing are the big three: China, India, and Brazil, who saw an investment rise of 16% to $120.2 billion
A large part of the record-breaking investment in developing countries took place in China. Indeed China has been the single biggest reason for the strong increasing trend for the developing world as a whole since 2004. In spite of low market fundamentals and much talk of decreased investment in RE, China has been a key contributor to these figures. China invested $102.9 billion in 2015, up 17%, representing well over a third of the global total.
Likewise, India enjoyed a second successive year of increasing investment, breaching the $10 billion for the first time since 2011.
Other developing countries, excluding the big three, lifted their investment by 30% last year to an all-time high of $36 billion, some 12x their 2004 investment, the biggest players are:
- South Africa also deserves an honorable mention as it’s RE investment is up 329% at $4.5 billion significantly ramping up their solar PV, in the context of their auction program. In June last year, the government in Pretoria launched a tender for an additional 1.8GW for its renewables program. One of the signal deals later in the year was the financing in September of the 100MW Redstone solar thermal project for an estimated $756m, helped by loans from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and Overseas Private Investment Corporation of the US;
- Mexico saw a 105% increase at $4 billion, aided by investment from the development bank Nafin for 9 wind projects. Moreover, Mexico is emerging as an important location for bond issues to back renewable energy projects. In November last year, National Financiera issued $500 million worth of five-year bonds to contribute towards the development of nine wind farms with a total capacity of 1.6GW;
- Chile saw an increase of 151% higher at $3.4 billion, thanks to a sizable uptrend in solar project financings;
- Morocco, Turkey, and Uruguay also saw investment increases in excess of the $1 billion milestone in 2015.
Developed world downward trend (mostly)
In the developed world, however, we are witnessing a downward trend quite consistently, since 2011, when it peaked at $191 billion, some 47% higher than the 2015 outturn. Developed countries invested $130 billion in 2015, down 8% and their lowest figure since 2009. This decline is due to two major factors:
- because of the US, where firstly; there was a rush of investment in 2011 as projects and companies tried to catch the Treasury grant and Federal Loan Guarantee programmes before they expired and secondly, the US Supreme Court’s decision in February 2016 to allow all legal objections to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to be heard before it can be implemented may be deterring investment in 2016.
- but much more to do with Europe, where allocations fell by 60% between 2011 and 2015. That big drop was caused by a mix of factors including retroactive cuts in support for existing projects in Spain, Romania and several other countries, an economic downturn in southern Europe that made electricity bills more of a political hot potato, the cut of government subsidies aimed at incentivizing RE in Germany and Italy, and the big fall in the cost of PV panels over recent years.Italy, in particular, saw renewable energy investment of just under $1 billion, down 21% on 2014 and far below the peak of $31.7 billion seen during the PV boom of 2011.
Retroactive cuts to feed-in tariffs really weaken support for solar energy investments. Spain, scene of particularly painful retroactive revenue cuts imposed by the government during the 2011-14 period, and the end of all support for new projects, saw investments of just $573 million in 2014. This was slightly up on the previous year but miles below the $23.6 billion peak of 2008.
But it’s not all bad in Europe, especially since the UK has not seen a significant slowdown in RE investments in recent years, and is actually pushing in the opposite direction. Moreover, in spite of the fact that offshore wind in the North Sea has seen massive investments amounting to $17b, Europe’s aggregate RE investment is still in decline.