Photovoltaics dominate as new energy-generating technology


New research from BloombergNEF revealed that photovoltaics dominated as the main new power-generating technology source in dozens of countries around the world in 2019.

From Australia to India, Italy, Namibia, Uruguay and the US, 2019 saw a record 118GW of new generation capacity constructed. Photovoltaics (PV) topped all other technologies in new-build terms and was the most popular technology deployed in a third of nations, according to data compiled by research company BloombergNEF (BNEF). 

In all, 81 countries built at least 1MW of solar during the last calendar year and solar accounted for nearly half of all new power generation capacity worldwide.

The report highlights the rise of solar over the last decade, from 43.7GW total capacity installed in 2010 to 651GW as of year-end 2019.

Solar in 2019 exceeded the total installed capacity for wind (644GW), becoming the fourth-largest source of power on a capacity basis, behind coal (2,089GW), gas (1,812GW), and hydro (1,160GW). There is now more wind and solar capacity online worldwide than total capacity from all technologies, clean or dirty, in the U.S.

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“Sharp declines in solar equipment costs, namely the modules that go on rooftops and in fields, have made this technology widely available for homes, businesses and grids,” said Luiza Demôro, BNEF analyst and lead author of the study. “PV is now truly ubiquitous and a worldwide phenomenon.”

On a generation basis, solar’s contributions are considerably smaller due to PV’s lower capacity factors compared to fossil fuels. In 2019, solar accounted for 2.7% of electricity generated worldwide, BNEF found, up from 0.16% a decade ago. Given the inexpensive nature of the technology and the limited penetration on a generation basis, BNEF expects the market to continue to grow, with 140-178GW of new solar to be built in 2022. 

The data offer other important insights on how the world is generating electricity. From 2018 to 2019, power produced from coal dropped 3% as plants ran less frequently. This marked the first fall in coal generation since 2014-2015 and while the world has far more coal plants online today than a decade ago, those plants are running less often. The average utilisation rate at coal-fired power plants has dropped from 57% in 2010 to 50% in 2019. Still, the 9,200 terawatt-hours (TWh) produced from coal in 2019 was up 17% from 2010.

Global coal capacity surged 32% over the decade to reach  2.1TW in 2019. Over 113GW of net coal retirements in developed nations during the 2010s could not offset the 691GW flood of net new coal in emerging markets. In 2019, the world saw 39GW of net new coal capacity installed, up significantly from 2018 when 19GW of coal was completed. 

“Wealthier countries are moving quickly to mothball older, largely inefficient coal plants because they can’t compete with new gas or renewables projects,” said Ethan Zindler, head of Americas at BNEF. “However, in less developed nations, particularly in south and southeast Asia, new, more efficient coal plants continue to come online – often with financial support from Chinese and Japanese lenders.”

BNEF’s Power Transition Trends 2020 report and online tool tracks detailed capacity and generation data over the past decade. Other findings from the new data include:

Photovoltaics by far the world’s leading power-generating technology installed in 2019;  45% of capacity added was solar with one third of all countries making it their top choice

  • Wind and solar accounted for over two-thirds of the 265GW of new capacity installed worldwide in 2019, up from less than a quarter of new build in 2010. For the first time, the two technologies also accounted for the majority of new generation recorded in 2019. Including hydropower, renewables made up three-fourths of 2019 commissioned capacity.
  • Wind and solar build were mostly concentrated in wealthier nations during the first half of the 2010s but that has shifted recently. In a group that includes nearly all OECD nations, wind and solar have accounted for the majority of new capacity built each year since 2011. Among a group of non-OECD nations plus Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Turkey, wind and solar have accounted for the majority of annual build each year since 2016.
  • BNEF estimates that the global power sector CO2 emissions slipped 1.5% 2018-2019 as declines in the U.S. and EU more than offset an increase from China, which accounted for 37% of the 2019 total. The U.S. followed with 14% and the EU with 6%.

Figure 1: Most annual newly installed power-generating technology in 2010 vs. 2019
BNEF - Figure 1 Most annual newly installed power-generating technology in 2010 vs. 2019.jpg
Source: BloombergNEF. Note: Map colored by which technology was most installed in 2010 and in 2019 alone. Solar includes small-scale PV.

The Power Transition Trends 2020 report and tool are based on data collected individually from 138 nations through 2019. This encompasses every country in the world with over two million inhabitants. 

Separately, BNEF has been tracking power production in 25 of the world’s largest developed markets daily in 2020. Based on those preliminary data, BNEF expects total global generation, coal generation, and power sector CO2 emissions to fall further in 2020. Emergency responses to Covid-19 have slowed economies and cut electricity demand in at least 20 major nations vs. business-as-usual scenarios calculated by BNEF.