Across the globe, renewable energy is expanding faster than fossil fuels. It’s even taking off in countries that may surprise you.
“Once again in 2014, renewables made up nearly half of the net power capacity added worldwide,” says Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. After a two-year dip, they’re attracting more investment. Hydropower generates the largest share of renewable energy, followed by wind and biomass, but solar is growing the fastest.
Some countries are obvious leaders. The U.S. and China had the greatest installed capacity for producing power from wind in the last two years, while Germany and China had the most from solar panels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and Ren21, an international nonprofit group.
Yet five smaller or developing countries are also showing their green potential.
—Italy, famous for its Tuscan sun, had the third-largest power capacity from solar panels, and it generated the highest share of its electricity from the sun.
—Spain was able to generate the most electricity from concentrated solar power, which uses mirrors to focus a large amount of sunlight onto a small area. The U.S. was second, followed by the United Arab Emirates, India, and Algeria.
—Denmark, known for iconic windmills off its coast, generated a larger share of its electricity from wind than any other country in 2012. Portugal and Spain, two other small coastal European countries, ranked second and third.
—India, where one-fourth of the people lack access to electricity, had the world’s fifth largest wind capacity by the end of last year, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. Spain ranked fourth.
—Japan, which has been moving away from nuclear power after the 2011 meltdown at its Fukushima Daiichi plant, is turning to the sun. Last year, after China, it added the second-largest amount of solar capacity to its power grid, reports the International Energy Agency.
Noting the plunge in solar prices in recent years, the IEA says solar could become the world’s largest source of electricity by mid-century, providing about one-fourth of its power. In 2013, solar barely accounted for 1 percent.
“By 2040, developing economies will have spent $1 trillion on small PV systems, in many cases bringing electricity for the first time to remote villages,” says Jenny Chase, chief solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Her group forecasts that by 2030, new onshore wind and solar energy will be cheaper than new or existing fossil fuel plants.
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