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Clean energy: How the world is cleaning up its act (+video)

Last year, new global capacity of hydroelectricity, wind, solar, and other renewable power grew more than in any previous year. Clean energy faces daunting obstacles, but the progress on energy and climate to date is notable and likely to continue.

The clean-energy world of the future is still a long way off, but it is arriving faster than ever before.

Last year, new global capacity of hydroelectricity, wind, solar, and other renewable power grew by more than in any year before, according to a new report by the Paris-based International Energy Agency, continuing a run of record-breaking additions that stretches back to the beginning of this century. Renewable electricity now accounts for about 22 percent of power generation worldwide, up from 18.4 percent in 2005. The rise is largely due to the emergence of the onshore wind industry and the spread of solar photovoltaic technology. By decade’s end, the IEA projects that more than a quarter of the world’s electricity will come from sources that are carbon-free and naturally replenishable.

That’s good news for the planet. As world leaders prepare for climate talks in Paris next year, scientists continue to issue dire warnings about the way humans have long harnessed energy for development. Burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases that trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere and warm the planet. If the world continues to release these gases at current rates, most scientists agree the results for civilization would be devastating.

Renewable energy is far from perfect, but it offers a cleaner, more sustainable alternative for keeping the lights on. Countries around the globe are increasingly embracing the technology not only for environmental ends, but also as a means to foster innovation, grow new industries, and bolster energy security. “The realization is gradually growing that climate protection is not costly but profitable, because it’s cheaper to save energy than to buy it, let alone burn it,” says Amory Lovins, chief scientist at Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit that promotes efficiency and renewables. “And you don’t need a treaty to get countries to do what’s in their economic self-interest.”

The price differential, already shrinking, will continue to narrow in coming decades. Extracting coal and other carbon-heavy fuels will get more expensive as resources dwindle, analysts say, just as new inventions, policies, and business models continue to make renewable power cheaper, more reliable, and more efficient. That promises to accelerate the expansion of a smarter, cleaner, 21st-century power grid.

“If you think about the first portable phones, they were the size of a loaf of bread,” says Steven Cohen, executive director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Now we have a phone that is smaller than your wallet.” A similar progression will happen for rooftop solar panels and batteries, Mr. Cohen says, making them cheaper and more convenient than buying power from conventional utilities.

More promising yet, the rise of wind and solar is happening most dramatically where the need is greatest. China is the world’s largest carbon emitter, and has fueled its dramatic growth with coal, the world’s dirtiest fuel. That’s changing.

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“Essentially, China put in more solar last year than any country has ever put in in a single year,” says Joanna Lewis, associate professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. “This year, the expectations are for even more than last year.”

What’s driving the shift? High-profile urban smog is one answer, but Ms. Lewis adds that Beijing is also interested in renewables as a strategic industry for expanding manufacturing and pioneering scientific developments. It’s also cheaper for China, as the world’s newly minted top oil importer, to meet ballooning energy demand with home-grown resources than to buy from abroad.

There’s hope that other emerging economies will run primarily on sun and wind, leapfrogging the industrialized world’s centralized, carbon-heavy grids. Sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of the population lack electricity, is ripe for the development of low-carbon, decentralized power. “If you live in Kenya, you’re more likely to get your first electricity from an entrepreneurial woman selling or leasing solar panels than waiting for power lines to reach your house to bring remotely produced fossil-fuel electricity that you can’t afford,” Mr. Lovins says.

To be sure, wind and solar remain a small fraction of global energy, and most project fossil fuels will dominate the mix for decades to come. The IEA warns policy uncertainty could derail the acceleration of these burgeoning industries. Global emissions show little sign of slowing, and a changing climate appears to already be exacerbating droughts, floods, and storms. Renewables face daunting obstacles, but the progress to date is notable and likely to continue. “There’s no reason to believe human ingenuity can’t solve these kinds of problems,” Cohen says.

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