South Africa opts for sun and wind as green energy investments surge in developing world

Latest UNEP report on green energy shows developing nations are investing more in renewable energy than developed countries

South Africans have long endured frequent power blackouts that can last for more than 12 hours at a time. The flickering lights severely hamper Africa’s second-largest economy, as consumers stay at home, foreign investors pull back and factories lose out.

Plagued by these rolling blackouts, South Africa vowed in 2010 to launch a string of renewable energy projects that will deliver 18 gigawatts of power to the nation. This landmark decision to use renewables to keep the country’s lights on means that South Africa is now on the cusp of a green energy transformation.

From 2014 to 2015, South Africa’s investment in renewable energy rose by 329 per cent to $4.5 billion, one of the many reasons why last year was the time that investment in renewables – excluding hydro power – was higher in developing economies than in developed countries.

Renewable energy from sources like the wind and sun were once seen by some critics as a luxury affordable only in richer parts of the world. But South Africa and other developing economies are proving these critics wrong, according to a UNEP report released today called Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016.

The report says that China raised investments in renewable energy to $103 billion last year, accounting for 36 per cent of the world’s total.

Other developing countries also increased investment in green energy last year, with India totalling $10.2 billion, Mexico $4 billion and Chile $3.4 billion, according to the report

Morocco, Turkey and Uganda all joined the list of countries that invested more than $1 billion in renewable energy in 2015.

The report, which is prepared by the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, lists a series of other impressive achievements in 2015 that show how renewables are playing a major role in powering the planet and combatting climate change.

Global investment in renewables hit $285.9 billion last year, a new high that outstrips the previous record set in 2011 at the peak of the “green stimulus” programmes and the German and Italian rooftop solar booms. Total investment in renewable energy over the past 12 years has now reached $2.3 trillion.

The report, which is published every year by UNEP, also found that renewables added more to global energy generation capacity than all other technologies combined – another first for green energy.

Strikingly, coal and gas-fired electricity generation last year drew less than half the investment made in solar, wind and other renewables capacity, despite tumbling oil, gas and coal prices.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said: "Access to clean, modern energy is of enormous value for all societies, but especially so in regions where reliable energy can offer profound improvements in quality of life, economic development and environmental sustainability.

“Continued and increased investment in renewables is not only good for people and planet, but will be a key element in achieving international targets on climate change and sustainable development.”

Were it not for renewables – excluding large hydro – annual global CO2 emissions would have been an estimated 1.5 gigatonnes higher last year.

But even though 2015 produced a series of encouraging records for investment in renewable energy, far more needs to be done. Policy support for renewables remains fickle in some countries and plunging oil, coal and gas prices may tempt some developing countries to maintain their reliance on fossil fuels.

The total investments are also far below those needed to keep temperatures from rising above the levels required to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

In order to limit global warming well below two degrees Celsius – a goal set at the recent climate summit in Paris – the world needs to invest more than $1 trillion extra per year in clean energy up to 2050, a target known as the “clean trillion”.

“Despite the ambitious signals from COP 21 in Paris and the growing capacity of new installed renewable energy, there is still a long way to go,” said Prof. Dr. Udo Steffens, President of the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management.

"Coal-fired power stations and other conventional power plants have long lifetimes. Without further policy interventions, climate altering emissions of carbon dioxide will increase for at least another decade.”

The efforts of countries like South Africa, which is now one of the world’s top 10 countries for harnessing renewable energy, highlight the benefits of government action.

New renewable energy projects are expected to reduce the country’s carbon dioxide emissions by 500,000 tonnes per year and create 2,000 jobs every year during the construction phases.

In April 2015, the government announced further plans to add an additional 6,300 megawatts from renewable energy sources.

These efforts have attracted major international companies like Google, which has a stake in the country’s $260 million Jasper Power Project – a 96 megawatt solar power plant near Kimberley in South Africa’s Northern Cape that powers 80,000 homes.

UNEP through its Seed Capital Assistance Facility Project also helped co-finance the development of the country’s Kouga wind farm, whose 32 turbines will generate enough electricity for about 50,000 homes once fully commissioned.

“By adopting the Sustainable Development Goals last year, the world pledged to end poverty, promote sustainable development, and to ensure healthier lives and access to affordable, sustainable, clean energy for all. Continued and increased investment in renewables will be a significant part of delivering on that promise,” said Mr Steiner.