IEA: Renewable energy making global gains, but so is coal

Renewable energy grew at an extraordinary pace worldwide in 2012, with global solar power capacity up 42 percent and sales of hybrid electric vehicles surpassing more than 1 million for the first time in history.

But the International Energy Agency said the increase in renewables  isn’t enough to curb the march of climate change, because coal has continued to dominate growth in power generation around the world, led by China and India.

Coal-fired power generation increased 45 percent from 2000 to 2010, far outpacing the 25 percent growth in non-fossil fuel energy. From 2010 to  2012, coal-fired power generation  grew 6 percent, according to the IEA. China consumed nearly half of the world’s coal demand and India used nearly 11 percent.

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Growing coal exports from the United States are feeding some of that rising demand and lowering the price of coal on the global market. The rise of low-cost natural gas from shale has shifted some power generation in the United States from coal to gas, leading U.S. miners to ship their excess coal overseas. That low-priced coal helped fuel 65 percent growth in coal-based power generation in Spain and 35 percent growth in the United Kingdom, the IEA noted.

“This is the fundamental threat to a lower carbon future,” said Justine Garrett of the International Energy Agency’s Carbon Capture and Storage Unit in a Thursday phone conference about the report. “Dependence on coal for economic growth is particularly strong for emerging economies, like China and India, but it’s also growing in Europe.”

Renewable power generation also grew rapidly, but continues to exist at minuscule capacities compared to fossil fuels.

Solar photovoltaic capacity grew by 42 percent worldwide and wind power capacity expanded by 19 percent.

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However, global investment in new renewable power plants slowed to $240 billion in 2012, after hitting a record $270 billion in 2011, the IEA said. The agency blamed “uncertainty and stop-and-go policy decision-making” in key nation’s. Congress’ last-minute decision to renew the wind production tax credit in January was preceded by a series of wind industry layoffs and factory closures by companies fearing the tax break would end.

“These developments show transparent policies are essential to keeping renewables on track,” Garrett said. “On the whole, despite the investment slowdown, renewables are progressing well; but overall energy supply is not getting any cleaner. The average unit of energy produced today is as dirty as it was 20 years ago.”

The IEA also noted that the transportation sector is making some gains in energy conservation. Sales of hybrid electric vehicles grew 43 percent over 2011, with most of the 1.2 million cars and trucks sold in Japan (740,000 vehicles) and the United States (355,000).