​Modern bioenergy ‘the overlooked giant’ of the renewable energy field: IEA forecast

Modern bioenergy will have the biggest growth of renewable resources between 2018 and 2023, according to a new forecast from the International Energy Agency.

While growth in solar and wind is set to continue in the electricity sector, bioenergy remains the largest source of renewable energy because of its widespread use in heat and transport.

“Modern bioenergy is the overlooked giant of the renewable energy field,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a statement.

“Its share in the world’s total renewables consumption is about 50 percent today, in other words as much as hydro, wind, solar and all other renewables combined. We expect modern bioenergy will continue to lead the field, and has huge prospects for further growth. But the right policies and rigorous sustainability regulations will be essential to meet its full potential.”

The IEA said its focus on bioenergy is part of its analysis of “blind spots” of the energy system – issues that are critical to the evolution of the energy sector but that receive less attention than they deserve – such as the impact of air conditioners on electricity demand, or the growing impact of petrochemicals on global oil demand.

The IEA expects China to lead global growth in renewable energy as a result of policies to decarbonize all sectors and reduce harmful local air pollution, becoming the largest consumer of renewable energy, surpassing the European Union by 2023.

Of the world’s largest energy consumers, Brazil has the highest share of renewables by far – almost 45 percent of total final energy consumption in 2023, driven by significant contribution of bioenergy and hydropower, the IEA said.

“Solar PV dominates renewable electricity capacity expansion. Renewable capacity additions of 178 gigawatts in 2017 broke another record, accounting for more than two-thirds of global net electricity capacity growth for the first time. Solar PV capacity expanded the most (97 GW), over half of which was in China. Meanwhile, onshore wind additions globally declined for the second year in a row, and hydropower growth continued to decelerate,” the IEA said.

“Solar PV capacity is forecast to expand by almost 600 GW – more than all other renewable power technologies combined, or as much as twice Japan’s total capacity, reaching 1 terawatt (TW) by the end of the forecast period. Despite recent policy changes, China remains the absolute solar PV leader by far, holding almost 40% of global installed PV capacity in 2023. The United States remains the second-largest growth market for solar PV, followed by India, whose capacity quadruples.”

The IEA expects wind to remain the second-largest contributor to renewable capacity growth, while hydropower remains the largest renewable electricity source by 2023. Similar to last year’s forecast, wind capacity is expected to expand by 60 percent. Meanwhile, spurred by technological progress and significant cost reductions, offshore wind capacity triples, with growth moving beyond Europe to Asia and North America.

“Even with renewable energy technologies becoming increasingly competitive, appropriate policies and market design are critical. Under an accelerated case, which assumes greater supportive government measures, the expansion of renewables in electricity and in transport could be 25 percent higher,” the IEA said.

“Untapped potential of bioenergy in cement, sugar and ethanol industries is also significant. Bioenergy growth in the industry, transport and electricity sectors combined could be as considerable as that of other renewables in the electricity sector. A significant proportion of this potential relies on wastes and residues that offer low lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and mitigate concerns over land-use change. In addition, using these resources can improve waste management and air quality.”