Identifying Global Trends in Renewable Energy
In finding an interesting dataset for this project, I had gone through multiple iterations of the same issue. Find and download a dataset, get excited about some ideas, realize that half the values are missing, or that it only covers the span of three months, or that any of the other numberless reasons why a dataset won’t do what you want it to do would get in my way.
By the time I found the UN's Sustainable Energy For All (SE4All) data, my dream project had been constructed and crushed and reconstructed in my head multiple times. But this one showed promise... A reliable source, an important topic, a global scale, a sense of purpose and urgency. Download. Read into R. Perform some standard data wrangling. Let's take a look. You can imagine my dismay when the data showed the top ten countries by Renewable Share of Energy Consumption to be crowded with what seemed to be "random" low-income Sub-Saharan African nations.
That can't be right. The data must be flawed. Next.
I started looking for another dataset, but five minutes later my mind wandered back to SE4All. What if it wasn't wrong? Wouldn't that be something...
A quick Google search, and my suspicion was confirmed. Multiple articles corroborated my findings about Sub-Saharan African countries and their reliance on renewable energy in areas without an extensive energy grid. In the first minute, this data had told me an unexpected story.
From that point on, my goal was clear: Build a tool that can help identify trends in global renewable energy output and consumption.
Now finished, the tool (an RShiny App) relies on sharp, interactive visualizations and intuitive user inputs. Anyone interested in global renewable energy, for curiosity or more serious academic/industrial applications, can easily navigate the pages to explore trends by Country, Region and Income Group over the years 1990-2015.
The best way to share the possible insights is through a few stories I’ve uncovered. I highly encourage you to open the app and follow along. (Navigation instructions will be italicized throughout this post).
Sub-Saharan Africa Out Front
That first story I learned about low-income Sub-Saharan African countries is also one of the most noticeable observations when you open the app to the World Map page. After selecting Renewable Share of Total Final Energy Consumption (TFEC), the boxes at the top show the top three countries by this share in 2015, and the map represents the same data for each country around the world (darker green equals higher percentage).
Similarly to what I found before, the top three countries are all low-income Sub-Saharan African countries. And that same region shows the darkest concentration of green on the map.
If we click on the Explore tab and navigate to the Top Countries page, we see that story even more clearly.
Sticking with Renewable Share of TFEC in 2015, these pie charts show the top countries split out by Region and Income Group. The first set shows the top five countries; the second set shows the top fifty. On this page, adjust the Select Number of Countries slider to change the number of countries included in the charts.
The dominance of Sub-Saharan African and low-income countries in each of these sets is both striking and commendable. It should be noted, though, that with these countries being in different stages of development, their total energy consumption and output are often relatively low. A goal of SE4All is to help them grow economically while scaling up their renewable energy infrastructure to bring sustainable electricity to wider reaches of their populations. With that in mind, we'll note a cautionary tale of a similar country sacrificing sustainable practices for economic growth.
Ghana's Rise and Fall
In 1990, 100% of Ghana's electricity output came from renewable resources. Along with Andorra, it was the only country in the world with a perfect score. Fast forward to 2015, and not only has Ghana dropped out of the top countries; it's dropped to 50% electricity output from renewables.
Click on Explore again, select the Country page, and then choose Ghana from the dropdown menu to see what happened.
The top two charts show Ghana's Renewable Shares (%) and Total Renewable Energy/Electricity (GWh) for Electricity Output and TFEC, from 1990-2015. The blue lines represent Output while the black lines represent TFEC. Looking at the blue lines for Output, we can see Ghana's world-leader status in Renewable Share begins a sharp decline in 1997, continuing downward with fluctuation to its mediocre 2015 numbers. Over the same period of time, its total Renewable Electricity Output keeps relatively steady.
This suggests that in 1997 Ghana began outputting electricity by non-renewable means, and steadily grew that non-renewable output through the next two decades.
Now we'll study the bottom two charts. The left shows percent of population with access to electricity, broken out by Rural, Urban and Total populations. The right shows GDP Per Capita in USD. The data for both of these charts was sourced from the World Bank's Open Data Catalogue.
On the left chart, we see a steady upward trend in Ghana's population with access to electricity, including a slight spike in 1997 when it first introduced serious non-renewable electricity output. On the right, we see a period of exponential GDP Per Capita growth from 2000 to 2015.
Now the story connects. In an effort to industrialize and bring electricity to its population, Ghana invested in non-renewable electricity production. Along with many other likely contributions from the Ghanaian government and people, this resulted in a meteoric rise out of its low-income designation.
We must applaud Ghana’s successes, as the near 15-year span of GDP growth is quite remarkable. At the same time, for countries that find themselves today where Ghana was 30 years ago, I hope there’s a way to scale an energy grid on renewable resources rather than relying on non-sustainable practices.
Greenland Going Green
For inspiration on that front, we can return to the World Map page and hover over Greenland. Select the year 1990, and hover over Greenland again.
Between 1990 and 2015, the most visible difference between the two - both because of the country’s drastically darker shading and its sheer size on the map - comes from Greenland. Zero percent Renewable Electricity Share in 1990, to 81% in 2015.
A little research on Greenland’s energy history shows how it solved a similar problem to Ghana’s in a totally different way. While 100% of the population had access to electricity in 1990, most of that energy came from imported fossil fuels. Like Ghana, Greenland wanted to build a grid with energy sourced from within the country. In a similar time span in which Ghana grew its non-renewable electricity production, Greenland opened a range of hydroelectric plants. Now it is a leader among high income countries in terms of Renewable Electricity Output.
Northern Europe Takes the Lead
Finally, let’s take a look at another interesting trend among high-income countries. While high-income countries tend to rely more heavily on non-renewable energy sources, Northern Europe as a region has taken great strides to change that.
Two of the top three high-income countries by Renewable Share of Electricity Output are Iceland and Norway - a trend that has held true as long as SE4All has collected data. While they found themselves mostly alone in their region back in 1990, and still lead by a decent margin today, many of their Northern European neighbors have significantly closed the gap.
We can see this by navigating to the Region page and selecting Northern Europe from the dropdown.
A snapshot in 1990 would show Iceland and Norway far ahead of the pack; with Latvia, Sweden, the Faroe Islands and Finland occupying an intermediary section; and everyone else at near-zero. Take the same snapshot in 2015 and you’ll see a strikingly different picture.
The only countries that remain below 25% are Estonia and Isle of Man. Every other country except for Latvia (which still ranks sixth in the region) grew its Renewable Share in the given 25 year span, with the most drastic growth coming from Denmark which started around 3% and ballooned to over 65%.
This largely high-income region has shown that growth of renewable energy is possible, even in countries with established energy grids. It is my hope, and the goal of SE4All, that renewable energy trends like those in Northern Europe can both continue, and serve as a model for countries around the world.