Two wind turbines went up every hour in countries such as China, according to International Energy Agency officials who have sharply upgraded their forecasts of how fast renewable energy sources will keep growing.
“We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the global energy advisory agency.
Part of the growth was caused by falls in the cost of solar and onshore wind power that Mr Birol said would have been “unthinkable” only five years ago.
Although coal and other fossil fuels remain the largest source of electricity generation, many conventional power utilities and energy groups have been confounded by the speed at which renewables have grown and the rapid drop in costs for the technologies.
Average global generation costs for new onshore wind farms fell by an estimated 30 per cent between 2010 and 2015 while those for big solar panel plants fell by an even steeper two-thirds, an IEA report published on Tuesday showed.
The Paris-based agency thinks costs are likely to fall even further over the next five years, by 15 per cent on average for wind and by a quarter for solar power.
It said an unprecedented 153 gigawatts of green electricity was installed last year, mostly wind and solar projects, which was more than the total power capacity in Canada.
It was also more than the amount of conventional fossil fuel or nuclear power added in 2015, leading renewables to surpass coal’s cumulative share of global power capacity — though not electricity generation.
A power plant’s capacity is the maximum amount of electricity it can potentially produce. The amount of energy a plant actually generates varies according to how long it produces power over a period of time.
Because a wind or solar farm cannot generate constantly like a coal power plant, it will produce less energy over the course of a year even though it may have the same or higher level of capacity.
Coal power plants supplied close to 39 per cent of the world’s power in 2015, while renewables, including older hydropower dams, accounted for 23 per cent, IEA data show.
But the agency expects renewables’ share of power generation to rise to 28 per cent by 2021, when it predicts they will supply the equivalent of all the electricity generated today in the US and EU combined.
It has revised its five-year forecasts to show renewables’ capacity will grow 13 per cent more than its estimate made just last year, mostly because of stronger policy backing in the US, China, India and Mexico.
Paolo Frankl, head of the IEA’s renewable energy division, said efforts to address climate change were only part of the reason for the governments’ policy drive.
Separate air pollution worries were also spurring growth in countries such as China, a renewable energy juggernaut that alone accounts for close to 40 per cent of capacity growth.
Mr Frankl said the move by countries to ratify the Paris climate agreement only 11 months after its adoption last December — at least a year earlier than expected — was likely to give another boost to renewables.
But he cautioned that growth still depends heavily on government policies that are shifting in many countries. The rapid growth of intermittent wind and solar also poses challenges for power system operators in some markets.
In addition, he said while onshore wind and solar growth was in line with what was needed to meet the Paris climate agreement’s goal to stop global temperatures rising more than 2C, renewables had to be used a lot more for heat and transport if the accord’s aims were to be met.
“There is still lots to be done here. There is too much policy uncertainty,” he said.