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Renewable Energy Not Growing as Fast as Necessary, Reports Say

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The sun sets behind the turbines of Elk River Wind Project in Kansas. Photo by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.

The sun sets behind the turbines of Elk River Wind Project in Kansas. Photo by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.

The sun sets behind the turbines of Elk River Wind Project in Kansas. Photo by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.

On the road to more sustainable, clean energy, the ride has been bumpy. That’s the message to two reports this week—one from the International Energy Agency and one from the Pew Environment Group—that measured progress on transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Renewable energy has stalled, both analyses point out, for a few different reasons. A big one was the global recession, not helped by enduring low cost of fossil fuels compared to cleaner alternatives. But chiefly, it’s a result of a lack of global investment in new energy research to bring down the cost of still-expensive technologies like solar, wind, biofuels, hydropower and geothermal. That reality makes it harder to imagine a way the world can limit temperature rise to 2 degrees C (2.6 degrees F) by this century, a threshold climate scientists have set to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Who’s winning and who’s poised to own the clean energy future? Here’s a look at the top five takeaways from the reports:

1) The U.S. is losing the race. Last year, China’s investment in clean energy sources rose 16 percent to $101 billion, landing it in first place. Virtually every other leading country, from Germany to Italy to Spain—did the opposite and scaled back investment. But none more than the U.S. No matter how you slice it, from government research to production tax credits, U.S. investment has fallen, down 37 percent in 2012. Solar and wind are expected to contract this year. As a result, the United States, which has long held the top ranking has now slipped to number two.

2) Watch out for South Africa. It’s still in ninth place globally, but that’s a big boost from last place among G-20 developed countries just a year earlier. Committing $5.5 billion to large scale solar and wind projects, the government upped it’s year-to-year investment by 20,500 percent.

3) It’s not all bad news. Despite lackluster investment, deployment of solar and wind power is still growing. Last year, the use of solar around the world increased 42 percent; wind grew by 19 percent. It’s mostly a result of emerging economies like Brazil and India catching up to where the U.S. and Western Europe have been for half a decade, but the capacity is being added as those countries’ energy demand quickly rises.

4) Wind dominates solar. While both are lumped together as neck-and-neck renewable sources, wind energy eclipses solar energy by more than double. Last year, wind power globally produced 280 gigawatts (GW) of energy, compared to solar’s 104 GW. China, again, is responsible for the most, followed by the U.S. and Germany.

5) CCS is still a pipe dream. The technology known as carbon capture and sequestration, which would bury greenhouse gasses deep underground, still hasn’t gotten on its feet. It was once billed as a silver bullet to stop putting gasses into the atmosphere, leaving energy analysts to project the world would need the capacity to trap 260 million tons of gas by 2020. With only 13 CCS demonstration projects around the world—and none in commercial operation—we’re barely a quarter of the way there.