Renewable Energy Supplied Nearly 25% of Global Electricity Needs in 2015
Tom Lombardo posted on June 13, 2016 |

A recent report by the international consortium REN21 shows that the switch to renewable energy is making significant headway in the quest to replace fossil fuels. In 2015, renewables accounted for almost one-fourth of the global electric generating capacity, despite the fact that fossil fuels received nearly four times as much money in government subsidies.

Energy Numbers

US government documents indicate that worldwide, there is about 7800 GW of electric generating capacity. At the end of 2015, 1849 GW (23.7%) of that capacity came from renewable energy.

The year saw a significant boost in renewable energy electricity generation, with the major increases sounding much like the local weather forecast for today: a mix of sunshine and wind. Total generating capacity went from 1701 GW in 2014 to 1849 GW in 2015, a 9% increase. The biggest percentage increase in new generating capacity comes from solar, with photovoltaic power increasing by 28% (227 GW, up from 177 GW) and concentrated solar power providing 4.8 GW, up 12% from the previous year. Wind power blew in an extra 63 GW, bringing its total to 433 GW in 2015. Although hydropower only increased by 2.7%, it's still the largest renewable energy source, delivering 1064 GW of electricity worldwide. Electricity from geothermal and biofuels round out the remaining 120 GW.

Tumbling fuel prices resulted in much more modest renewable energy increases in the heating, cooling, and transportation sectors. Renewable energy - mostly biomass, solar thermal, and geothermal - provided 8% of the world's heating and cooling, while biofuels - including renewable jet fuel - covered 4% of the transportation needs. The European transportation sector saw increases in alternative fuel delivery infrastructure, including biomethane, compressed natural gas, and electric vehicle charging stations.

Investments and Subsidies

Around the globe, government and private sector investments in renewable energy went from $273B in 2014 to $286B in 2015, a 5% increase. More than half of the total - $156B - came from developing nations, with the US contributing another $44B. Europe's investment in renewable energy actually declined in 2015. The bulk of the new investments came from the solar and wind markets, each garnering $161B and $109B, respectively.

Whenever someone tells me that renewable energy is only competitive with fossil fuels because of the subsidies, I'm forced to remind them that fossil fuels actually receive more subsidies than renewables. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that renewable energy received about $135B in government subsidies, while the fossil fuel industry enjoyed nearly four times that amount: $490B.

Technology Improvements

Although global energy demands continue to rise, increases in energy efficient technology has curtailed the growth somewhat. The bigger boost to renewable sources comes from improved grid hardware and software, which effectively balances supply and demand using sophisticated algorithms and short-term weather forecasting. The Smart Grid compensates for the variability of renewable sources like solar and wind, allowing them to become a more significant part of the baseload generation.


Various renewable energy industries were responsible for more than eight million jobs in 2015. The largest renewable energy job producer is solar, which employs nearly 2.8M people. I assumed that wind would be the second largest but was surprised to see that it's actually the liquid biofuel industry, with more than 1.6M employees. Wind-related jobs came in third with just over a million positions.

Image: REN21
Image: REN21

Here's a short video introduction to the report. You can download the full report here.


Follow Dr. Tom Lombardo on Twitter,  LinkedIn, Google+, and Facebook.

Recommended For You