Could Solar Energy Be The Largest Source of Energy by Mid-Century
At the risk of overusing a pun, the future of solar energy looks bright, based on two reports recently issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA). At the center of both reports’ findings is the notion that the sun has the potential to become the biggest electricity source by 2050. If all goes according to plan, that is.
Here’s how it breaks down, and what has to happen in order for solar power to take the center stage spotlight away from fossil fuels, wind, hydro, and nuclear energy.
The Growth of PV
With the right set of variables, the IEA projects that solar photovoltaic (PV) systems could generate up to 16 percent of the world’s electricity by 2050, with solar thermal electricity (STE) from concentrating solar power (CSP) plants providing an additional 11 percent. Put together, that would make solar the leading source of electric power, preventing more than 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.
As has been widely reported, sales of solar photovoltaic systems have skyrocketed in the last few years alone, thanks to significantly reduced costs. In fact, as the IEA reports, the gains made since 2010 has been more than that of the previous four decades. This is happening on a global scale, with China and the United States leading the way.
The benefits of solar PV are clear: there is no fuel price risk, no greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or other pollutants during operation, and little or no water is consumed. In order to reach the level of PV capacity that the IEA is hoping for by 2050, however, regulations, policies, and electricity markets will have to remain on board to support its steady rise, as well as a growing investment in the technology.
In other words, these hopeful projections are not written in stone.
On Deck: STE
As far as STE, which has had a slower ramp-up than PV, the growth of solar overall will depend on it gaining traction in the future. Especially in regions of the world that have a lot of sunny skies – like Africa, India, the Middle East and the United States – STE has the potential to expand, and work in conjunction with PV technologies to supercharge solar’s growth.
STE is needed in the long term because of its ability to store thermal energy that can be used to create electricity during times when there is no sunlight. In that respect, it’s a great complement to PV, since it limits the need for other energy sources.
The key for continued growth is for costs to keep going down, as pointed out by IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “Both technologies are very capital intensive: almost all expenditures are made upfront,” she said in a press statement. “Lowering the cost of capital is thus of primary importance for achieving the vision in these roadmaps.”
Only time will tell if solar technologies can continue their rapid expansion, and light the way for a future powered by clean energy.