Construction of renewable energy capacity around the world has shrugged off slow-downs linked to the Covid pandemic – and industry pessimists‘ worst fears – to add some 260GW of new plant last year, according to latest figures from the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), taking the global clean-energy base to almost 2.8TW.

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The expansion, which eclipsed 2019’s by almost 50%, translated into more than 80% of all new electricity capacity added last year coming from clean-energy sources, with solar and wind accounting for 91% of ‘new’ renewables, the agency said in its latest Renewable Capacity Statistics 2021.

“These numbers tell a remarkable story of resilience and hope. Despite the challenges and the uncertainty of 2020, renewable energy emerged as a source of undeniable optimism for a better, more equitable, resilient, clean and just future,” said Irena director-general Francesco La Camera.

“The great reset offered a moment of reflection and chance to align our trajectory with the path to inclusive prosperity, and there are signs we are grasping it.”

Renewables’ growing share of total electricity generation took place against a backdrop of “net decommissioning” of fossil fuel-fired power generation in Europe, North America – and for the first time across Eurasia (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Russian Federation and Turkey), noted Irena, which underscored that the fall in oil, gas and coal additions to 60GW in 2020 from 64GW the previous year “highlighted a continued downward trend”.

Expansion of wind power plant almost doubled in 2020 compared to 2019, with 111GW installed this year versus 58GW last. China accounted for 72GW of new global capacity, followed by the US (14GW), while ten other countries grew their domestic wind base by more than 1GW in 2020.

Offshore wind plant grew to reach around 5% of total sector capacity in 2020, with the installation of just over 6GW of new plant – over half of which was added off Asia – taking total global capacity to almost 35GW.

Annual solar capacity additions, meanwhile, reached 127GW on the back of a 78GW boom in Asia. Major growth in China (49GW) and Vietnam (11GW) headlined, with Japan also adding over 5GW and India and South Korea wiring in new solar capacity of more than 4GW. The US dominated western hemisphere installations, adding15GW.

Standout too among the findings of the Irena report was that growth in hydropower recovered in 2020, with the commissioning of several large projects. China adding 12GW in capacity, followed by Turkey with 2.5GW.

“Despite the difficult period, as we predicted, 2020 marks the start of the decade of renewables,” stated La Camera. “Costs are falling, clean tech markets are growing and never before have the benefits of the energy transition been so clear.

“This trend is unstoppable, but as the review of our World Energy Transition Outlook highlights, there is a huge amount to be done. Our [Paris Agreement-aligned] 1.5°C outlook shows significant planned energy investments must be redirected to support the transition if we are to achieve 2050 goals. In this critical decade of action, the international community must look to this trend as a source of inspiration to go further.”

Irena spotlighted that the 10.3% rise in installed capacity was expansion that “beat long-term trends of more modest growth year-on-year”. China and the US were the two “outstanding” growth markets from 2020, said the agency, with the Asian superpower adding 136GW last year, including 72GW of wind and 49GW of solar, while the American renewables fleet installed 29GW, nearly 80% more than in 2019, including 15GW of solar and 14GW of wind.

Africa continued to expand “steadily”, said Irena, with 2.6GW in new plant built, up on 2019, while Oceania remained the fastest growing region, with 18.4% increase in installation, “although its share of global capacity is small and almost all expansion occurred in Australia”.