Wind and solar energy generation growth

The beginning of a new year is  a good time to take stock of the on-going energy revolution. The world is turning away from the polluting and smelly fossil energy sources of yesteryear towards clean, renewable, sun-based energy (because the wind is also powered by the sun). The graphs attached to this post show the amount of generating capacity the world has for wind power and utility-scale solar photovoltaic power. That is, how much power could solar and wind generators crack out at any given time? The numbers presented here are from 2017, the last year with available data. Combined, solar and wind power capacity grew by almost 50% in 2017, ending in 399.7 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar capacity andf 514.8 GW of wind capacity.

The graphs above show a powerful story about growth: between 2007 and 2017, the amount of solar and wind capacity increased by 821%, or 822 gigawatts. More than one sixth (1/6) of this number — 144 gigawatts — was added in 2017 alone!

Solar and wind capacity is increasing steeply on all continents, even ones not shown in the graph. China in particular has led the green energy revolution since it decided, after 2006, to participate. Its growth in wind power has been 3800% while its growth in solar power has been an incredible 126,800% (!), starting from the very low base of only 100 megawatts. The increase is almost unfathomable. At the end of 2017, almost a third of all photovoltaic and wind turbine capacity was Chinese! The growth curve for China remains steeper than anywhere else.

This also has to do with China’s large population: its opportunities for expansion are much greater. If we look at solar and wind capacity per person, however, we get a better sense of how far different regions have come (and this probably deserves another graph, later). With its 1.3 billion people, China’s solar and wind capacity is only 226 megawatt per person.

For comparison, the United States has a capacity of about 420 megawatts per person and Europe is slightly above that (it’s unclear from the source of the data which country are included in the definition, so this is only an educated guess). Both the EU and the US are, in other words, miles ahead in the green energy transition, but China has the capacity for extreme growth. When 2018 numbers are published in June, expect China to have added another 180 megawatts of capacity, or so, based on its 2017 capacity plus ten percent growth.

A final observation is that Africa lags severely behind the curve. Although increasing steeply, its entire solar capacity is only the same as Canada’s, and its wind capacity is just a third. That’s despite a population that is almost 400 times as large. This is unfortunately a symptom of its endemic underdevelopment, since a very large number of people on the continent has never had reliable access to fossil or electric power. The good news is that solar power in particular offers Africans the opportunity to leapfrog from 17th century energy (biomass) to 21st century energy. Every roof on the continent could be equipped with solar panels, obviating the need to build expensive grids. Energy thus echoes the development in telecommunications, which only truly arrived with spread of cheap mobile phones.


category 2007 2017 increase % increase increase 2017
solar 8230.156 399612.6 391382.5 4755.4685 96830.51
wind 91894.008 514798.1 506568.0 551.2525 47099.64
total 100124.164 914410.8 906180.6 905.0569 143930.15

Data in megawatts, except where specified.

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