Growth of Global Solar and Wind Energy Continues to Outpace Other Technologies

New Worldwatch Study reveals Solar and Wind continue to dominate investment in new renewable capacity.



Matt Lucky is a Sustainable Energy Lead Researcher with Worldwatch's Climate and Energy Team.


Michelle Ray is a Climate and Energy Intern at the Worldwatch Institute.

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Solar and wind continue to dominate investment in new renewable capacity. Global use of solar and wind energy grew significantly in 2012. Solar power consumption increased by 58 percent, to 93 terrawatt-hours (TWh), while wind power increased by 18.1 percent, to 521.3 TWh.

Global investment in solar energy in 2012 was $140.4 billion, an 11 percent decline from 2011, and wind investment was down 10.1 percent, to $80.3 billion. Due to lower costs for both technologies, however, total installed capacities still grew sharply.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) installed capacity grew by 41 percent in 2012, reaching 100 gigawatts (GW). Installed PV capacity has grown by 900 percent since 2007. The countries with the most installed PV capacity today are Germany (32.4 GW), Italy (16.4 GW), the United States (7.2 GW), and China (7.0 GW). Concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) capacity reached 2.55 GW, with 970 megawatts (MW) alone added in 2012.

Europe remains dominant in solar, accounting for 76 percent of global solar power use in 2012. Germany alone accounted for 30 percent of the world’s solar power consumption, and Italy added the third most capacity of any country in 2012 (3.4 GW). Spain added the most CSP capacity (950 MW) in 2012 as well. However, Italy reached the subsidy cap for its feed-in tariff (FIT) program in June 2013, while Spain recently made a retroactive change in its FIT policies, meaning that growth in solar energy will likely slow in these countries in the near future.

The Asia-Pacific region now accounts for 17 percent of global solar use, leaving it behind only Europe. Solar consumption grew by 69.5 percent in the region in 2012, and Japan (6.7 percent of the world total) and China (4.9 percent) are now among the top five global solar energy consumers.

Due to slowing global economic growth, easing demand, and oversupply, there were significant net losses in the Chinese PV industry, which supplies more than half of the world market. The net losses have been exacerbated by growing trade wars between China and both the European Union (EU) and the United States after they accused Chinese companies of dumping solar panels on their markets. Overall, the United States added 3.3 GW of solar to reach a total installed capacity of 8.04 GW in 2012.

Total installed wind capacity edged up in 2012 by 45 GW to a total of 284 GW. In keeping with recent years, the majority of new installed capacity was concentrated in China and the United States, which reached total installed capacities of 75.3 GW and 60 GW, respectively.

The United States was the world’s top wind market in 2012, adding 13.1 GW. Increased domestic manufacturing of wind turbine parts, improved technological efficiency, and lower costs helped spur this increase, but the greatest catalyst was the threat of expiration of the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC)—which provides tax credits for kilowatt-hours produced by wind turbines—at the end of 2012.

The EU remained the dominant region for wind power, surpassing the 100 GW milestone and reaching a total installed capacity of 106 GW in 2012—37.5 percent of the world’s market. Germany and Spain remained Europe’s largest wind markets, increasing their total installed capacity to 31.3 GW and 22.8 GW, respectively, and wind now accounts for 11.4 percent of the EU’s total installed generation capacity.

Asia’s 15.5 GW of new installed wind capacity, the highest of any region in 2012, ensured that it remains on the heels of the EU with a total installed capacity of 97.6 GW. And while China’s 20.8 percent increase maintains the country’s regional dominance, India showed respectable gains by adding 2.3 GW to bring its total installedcapacity to 18.4 GW.

Latin America also saw significant growth in installed wind capacity, with Brazil growing from 2.3 GW to 3.5 GW. Political instability continued to slow growth in Africa and the Middle East, but installed capacity grew by 9.3 percent to 1,135 MW in 2012. Sub-Saharan Africa looks poised to lead the way in 2013 as South Africa continues making progress on over 500 MW of new wind power capacity.

While policy uncertainties and changes will likely challenge the growth of solar and wind in the future, these technologies are well poised to grow. Declining solar technology prices, while challenging for current manufacturers, are helping solar to reach near grid-parity in many markets with renewed interests in the CSP sector as well. With the decreasing cost of constructing and maintaining wind farms, wind power is already cost competitive with conventional power energy sources in many markets.