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Exceptional growth is the ‘new normal’ for solar and wind energy

2020 was a record-breaking year for renewable energy

Onshore wind turbines and electricity transmission pylons at the Little Cheyne Court Wind Farm near Camber, U.K., on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. 
Onshore wind turbines and electricity transmission pylons at the Little Cheyne Court Wind Farm near Camber, UK, on October 26th, 2020. 
Photo: Bloomberg / Contributor via Getty Images

Solar and wind energy growth soared in 2020 and is on course to keep catapulting upward. Last year, renewable sources of electricity grew faster than they have since 1999. That rapid rise is far from a one-off event, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which said today that the “exceptionally high” growth in 2020 is the “new normal.”

It’s yet another signal that renewable energy is elbowing out competition from fossil fuels, at least when it comes to electricity. New renewable energy capacity — primarily solar and wind — made up a whopping 90 percent of the power sector’s growth globally last year, according to the IEA, an intergovernmental organization that was founded to monitor the world’s oil supply but now also tracks renewable energy. The agency forecasts renewables to again account for 90 percent of the power sector’s expansion in 2021 and 2022.

That transition to renewable energy for electricity falls in line with many countries’ goals on climate change. President Joe Biden, for example, aims to get the US power sector running completely on clean energy by 2035. Electrifying buildings and transportation so that they can use solar and wind instead of oil and gas is one way governments and the private sector have moved to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

“Wind and solar power are giving us more reasons to be optimistic about our climate goals as they break record after record,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a press statement today.

Renewable electricity capacity grew by 280 gigawatts last year. The uptick amounts to a 45 percent rise in renewables last year compared to the year before. The IEA expects another 270 to 280 GW to come online this year and again in 2022.

Governments and companies purchased renewable energy at “record-breaking” rates last year, according to the IEA, and their appetite is still growing. Amazon proclaimed itself the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world in December 2020, beating out former record-holder Google, and it now has 8.5 GW of renewable energy capacity globally. The IEA’s estimates for global renewable electricity growth over the next couple of years are now more than 25 percent higher than previous estimates it made just six months ago.