Renewable energy surges in Asia, but so does electric demand

In China and India, as well as many African and Southeast Asian nations, the rise in electricity needs far surpasses renewable energy growth.

Darby Hopper/Medill News Service
Heymi Bahar (left) of the International Energy Agency and Allison Archambault, president of EarthSpark International, discuss the future of renewable energies with Charles Ebinger, Brookings senior fellow (right).

China remains the undisputed leader of growth in renewable energy worldwide, but that growth comes with a risk that Asia may end up with more energy capacity than it can use, according to the new annual report of the International Energy Agency.

The organization, which was founded by 29 oil-importing countries in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, projects renewable generating capacity to grow by 42 percent worldwide from last year to 2021. Heymi Bahar, IEA project manager for the report, said the projected growth is due to improved prospects in pivotal countries – notably China, but also India, Mexico, and the United States.

“The growth is strong,” Mr. Bahar said at a discussion Monday about the report, held at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “[But] it will depend significantly on how fast Asia, emerging Asia, decarbonizes, if you want to achieve these long-term targets.” Coal is cheaper and easier to use for heat than renewable energy, which has slowed the move to alternative power for China and other Asian countries.

Bajar said renewable energy is essential to addressing climate change, reducing pollution, and enhancing energy security.

The report follows what Bahar referred to as “a year of records.” In 2015, renewable energy surpassed coal as the largest source of power capacity in the world, according to the IEA, and half a million solar panels were installed on average every day. And the 2015 Paris Climate Conference became the most ambitious international climate agreement.

Another first is something the report predicts: Though China is the key growth market, the United States is expected to surpass the European Union in renewable energy capacity growth for the first time.  

But electricity demand is increasing faster than renewable energy growth, particularly in China, India and Southeast Asia, said Charles Ebinger, a Brookings senior fellow focused on energy security and climate. That creates an obstacle to reducing carbon use.

Bahar called the dilemma the product of a “two-speed world.” In the EU, the US and Japan, renewable energy growth is bigger than the growth in electricity need. In China and India, as well as many African and Southeast Asian nations, the rise in electricity needs far surpasses renewable energy growth.

Roughly 2 billion people worldwide have no access or spotty access to electricity, said Allison Archambault, president of EarthSpark International, which sells renewable energy products and installs microgrids, focusing on Haiti.

Ms. Archambault said that “microgrids” – localized, autonomous electric grids – and solar panel systems are the best ways to get energy beyond “the last hut on the last mountain.”

“I’m a big believer that these emerging market microgrids are where a lot of the innovation is going to happen,” Archambault said.

This article was produced in collaboration with Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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