Clean energy: Is a boom coming in 2014?

Clean energy is off to a strong start in 2014, with global investment rising as prices for wind and solar power continue to drop. Renewables still hold a small share of total energy mixes, but clean-energy growth is picking up momentum. 

Ajit Solanki/AP/File
A security guard walks amid a solar power project site in Raisan village near Gandhinagar, India. Investments in clean energy worldwide jumped 9 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2014, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The first quarter of 2014 may ease any worries about clean energy's future.

After two years of annual declines, investments in clean energy worldwide jumped 9 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2014, according to data released Wednesday by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), a London-based energy analysis firm. Solar power led the way with a 23 percent increase, more than offsetting a 16 percent decline in wind power. All told, investors spent $47.7 billion on renewables and energy efficiency in the first three months of this year.

Global investment in renewable energy is up, technology costs continue to drop precipitously, and markets are expanding into emerging economies in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The industry still has a long way to go, and many say a shift to cleaner energy is happening too slowly to offset the downsides of carbon-heavy fuels. Even so, the broad, global outlook for renewables is bright, and deployment of the technology verges on rapid acceleration. 

“It is too early to say definitively that 2013 was the low point for clean energy investment worldwide and that 2014 will show a rebound, but the first-quarter numbers are encouraging," Michael Liebreich, chairman of the advisory board for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said in a statement Wednesday.  

The bulk of the gains came in the form of small-scale solar installations, like residential rooftop solar panels. It suggests that falling prices and new financing options are quickly eroding the barriers to entry that long discouraged consumers from home solar. The cost of a rooftop solar array has dropped from nearly $7 per watt in 2008 to $4 or less in 2013, according to an April report by McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm. 

Clean-energy growth isn't limited to the world's developed economies. Brazil saw the biggest investment gain, jumping 211 percent year-over-year to $1.3 billion in the first quarter of 2014, according to BNEF. Investment grew 82 percent to $2.4 billion in the Middle East and Africa. 

"In Q1, we saw two of the top four asset finance deals happening in Indonesia and Kenya,” Mr. Liebreich said in a statement.

Wind and solar certainly face an uphill battle. Concerns about economic competitiveness and energy security have curtailed aggressive climate targets and subsidies that promoted renewables in Europe – its investment fell 30 percent compared to Q1 2013. In the US, a surge of natural gas production has competed with renewables for investment and market share (although US clean energy saw a 95 percent gain in Q1 investment). Last year, global clean energy investment fell 11 percent, according to BNEF, and it fell 10 percent the year before that.

Investment could still fall again in all of 2014,  but the underlying principles point to a dramatic – if eventual – change in the way people power their homes and fuel their cars.

"[T]he financial crisis, cheap natural gas, subsidy cuts by cash-strapped governments, and a flood of imports from Chinese solar-panel manufacturers have profoundly challenged the industry’s short-term performance. But they haven’t undermined its potential," McKinsey & Company's report reads. "The industry is poised to assume a bigger role in global energy markets; as it evolves, its impact on businesses and consumers will be significant and widespread."

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