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A United Nations agency and an international policy group have issued sister reports showing investments in renewable energy (excluding large hydropower) totaled $244 billion worldwide in 2012, with developing countries reaching near parity with developed ones.

The "Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2013" report, published by the UN Environment Program (UNEP), and "Renewables 2013 Global Status Report," released simultaneously by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), say last year's investments in renewable energy declined from $279 billion in 2011 due to lower solar prices and weakened markets in Europe and the U.S. However, the overall trend is up, the reports say.

Wind power reportedly reached a record of 48.4 GW of new installed capacity in 2012 - accounting for about 39% of added renewable power capacity, followed by small-scale hydropower and solar photovoltaics (PV), each garnering approximately 26%.

New global solar PV capacity reached 100 GW in 2012, surpassing biomass to become the third largest renewable power source in operation after hydropower and wind. Total new renewable power capacity worldwide exceeded 1,470 GW in 2012, up 8.5% from 2011.

A look around the globe
According to the UNEP and REN21, renewable energy investments in developing countries amounted to $112 billion in 2012 compared to $132 billion for developed countries, a difference of 18%. By comparison, renewable energy investments in 2007 were $146 billion, with spending in developed economies 2.5 times more than in developing ones.

Renewables are picking up speed across Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, with new investment in all technologies, according to the reports. The Middle East-North Africa region (MENA) and South Africa, in particular, witnessed the launch of ambitious new targets in 2012 and the emergence of policy frameworks and renewables deployment. The reports say markets, manufacturing and investment shifted increasingly toward developing countries during 2012.

According to the reports, renewables represent a rapidly growing share of energy supply in a growing number of countries and regions. Highlights include the following:

- The U.S. added more capacity from wind power than any other technology, and all renewables made up about half of total electric capacity additions over the year. However, the reports say investment was down 34% to $36 billion, mainly due to uncertainties over U.S. policy.

- In China, wind power generation increased more than that from coal and passed nuclear power output for the first time.

- In the European Union, renewables accounted for almost 70% of additions to electric capacity in 2012, coming predominately from solar PV and wind power. In 2011 (the latest data available), renewables met 20.6% of the region’s electricity consumption and 13.4% of gross final energy consumption.

- The reports say the importance of China and Europe for investments in renewables is clear: The regions accounted for 60% of world investment in 2012, even though it was the weakest year for Europe since 2009.

- In Germany, renewables accounted for 22.9% of electricity consumption (up from 20.5% in 2011), 10.4% of national heat use and 12.6% of total final energy demand. Germany saw renewables investment slip 35% to $20 billion, mainly driven by lower costs of installed solar capacity.

- The Middle East and Africa showed the highest regional growth in 2012, with investment up 228% to $12 billion.

- The reports say the brightest news from among the developed countries was Japan, where investment in renewable energy (excluding research and development) surged 73% to $16 billion, thanks largely to a boom in small-scale solar on the back of new feed-in tariffs for installations.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the UNEP says government intervention - nationally and increasingly at the local level - is essential for creating demand and sustaining momentum for renewable energy.

According to the UNEP, "Both policies and targets still play an important role in creating the conditions necessary to encourage renewable energy development and deployment. As the sector has continued to mature, revisions to historic policies have become increasingly common and a slate of new policies are beginning to emerge."

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