Generating and reporting up to date and accurate renewable energy data is essential for communicating the recent success the sector has had around the world. As renewable energy continues to expand in both developing and developed countries the difficulty in collecting timely, accessible, and reliable data for the entire sector is increasing.

Participants gather in Paris for the REN21 GSR Regional Contributors Workshop

Last week, REN21 assembled a small group of experts from around the world at the headquarters of the REN21 Secretariat and the UNEP Division of Technology, Industry and Economics in Paris to develop new strategies for addressing these data collection challenges. The workshop brought together key regional contributors to the annual REN21 Renewables Global Status Report (GSR) over two days to present challenges, propose solutions, and build a strong community of organizations determined to further advance renewable energy development and deployment.

Worldwatch Senior Fellow and GSR research director and lead author Janet Sawin and Worldwatch Research Associate Evan Musolino  were joined in Paris by representatives from the ECOWAS Regional Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE), the Regional Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (RCREEE), the Austrian Energy Agency, the Brazilian Reference Center on Biomass (CENBIO), the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP), African Solar Designs, Bridge to India, and Fundacion Bariloche to assess these data needs.

Throughout the workshop a number of different data collection challenges were identified by those in attendance. Official government statistics on installed capacity and generation are quite often out of date, unavailable, or vary when reported by different agencies within the government. Tracking development in other aspects of the renewable energy sector, such as utilizing renewable energy technologies for off-grid distributed energy solutions, provide even more significant challenges that must be addressed.

The challenges in data collection have far reaching consequences for many key actors as they constrain the ability to accurately assess the current status of the renewable energy sector. The lack of timely and accurate information is a significant contributor to a number of key barriers to renewable energy development and deployment. Information gaps are central components of the financial barriers for renewables as they heighten the perceived risk for financiers, restricting access to the funds needed for project development.

As the recent changes to feed-in tariff rates across Europe have exemplified, accurate information is essential for a successful policy making processes. Tracking policy developments offer additional challenges as it is often quite difficult to assess whether enacted policies are also being successfully implemented.

Furthermore, the misperception of renewables as an expensive, luxury technology continues to be driven by a lack of understanding of the true extent of the development of renewable energy technologies and the impact these technologies have had on people and societies around the world. A more complete analysis of the enormous strides made in the sector would go a long way towards countering these myths.

Even with these significant challenges what the data does show is that enormous gains have been made in the sector during the last decade. At year end 2004 installed non-hydro renewable power capacity totaled only 160 gigawatts (GW) worldwide. By 2012, this total has more than doubled to a total of 390 GW of installed power capacity which generates over 20 percent of the world’s electricity. This growth in capacity has led to the employment of as many as 5 million people worldwide in the renewables sector last year, up from an estimated 1.7 million in 2004. Renewables still have a long way to go to meet their full potential. To facilitate this expansion it is critical that we become more efficient in comprehensively tracking their progress along the way.

 Evan Musolino is a Research Associate on the Climate and Energy team at Worldwatch Institute.

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data collection, indicators, REN21, renewable energy