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The World's Renewable Energy Capacity Now Beats Out Coal

The tipping point marks a major milestone in the transition to cleaner power sources.

The World's Renewable Energy Capacity Now Beats Out Coal
[Photo: Thomas Richter]

Every day in 2015, the world built about half a million solar panels. China built an average of two wind turbines every hour. Combined with the insane growth of renewables over the last several years, it was enough to tip over a major milestone: Now, for the first time, there is more global capacity for renewable electricity than coal.

So says a new report from the International Energy Agency, which also predicts that renewables will grow even faster over the next five years.

"In a nutshell, I think the IEA's report and the statistics for 2015 are testaments to the fact that both wind and solar now are at the energy 'big table,'" says Francis O’Sullivan, director of research at the MIT Energy Initiative. "It really highlights just how serious an option renewables have become in the broader context of delivering capacity to the power markets."

There's still a long way to go—a massive, one-gigawatt solar farm with the same capacity as a couple of coal power plants can't deliver the same amount of energy, because the coal plants can run 24 hours a day. The same goes for wind farms. So despite the increase in renewable capacity, at this point, we're still using more fossil fuels than renewables. By 2021, with speedy growth, we'll still only be using 28% renewable energy. To meet climate goals, we'll need to transition completely, quickly.

But the new numbers—along with the fact that price of solar and wind is expected to continue to drop dramatically—are more evidence that the needed transition is feasible.

"It does show that progress has been made," says Marc Jacobson, a Stanford University engineering professor who has calculated, in detail, that it's possible for the U.S. to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Jacobson argues that even though renewable energy is growing faster than ever before, we need to replace fossil fuels at least five times as fast as is currently happening. "That gives us hope that we can speed up by a factor of another 5-10, which is really what we need."

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