Sun will be largest electricity source by 2050, says IEA

Solar power could provide more than a quarter of the world's electricity by 2050, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Solar photovoltaic (PV) energy – which converts sunlight directly into electricity – could provide 16% of the world’s energy, while solar thermal (STE) – which concentrates the sun’s power to heat water- could account for 11%.

“The rapid cost decrease of photovoltaic modules and systems in the last few years has opened new perspectives for using solar energy as a major source of electricity in the coming years and decades,” said IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven.

“However, both technologies are currently very capital intensive: almost all expenditures are made upfront. Lowering the cost of capital is thus of primary importance for achieving the vision in these roadmaps.”

Van der Hoeven stressed that the report is a ‘roadmap’ to the 2050 target rather than a prediction. Accordingly, the report calls for credible and consistent signals from policy makers, as a way to lower deployment risks to investors and inspire confidence.

“By contrast,” Van der Hoeven said, “where there is a record of policy incoherence, confusing signals or stop-and-go policy cycles, investors end up paying more for their investment, consumers pays more for their energy, and some projects that are needed simply will not go ahead.”

Solar arms race

The document goes on to underline the complementary role of the two technologies. With 137 GW of capacity installed worldwide at the end of 2013 and adding up to 100 MW each day, PV deployment so far has been much faster than STE, mainly thanks to lower sunk costs.

However, by 2030, ‘massive-scale STE deployment takes off’, thanks to the technology’s ability to story energy (unlike PV) and provide power 24 hours a day.

The report sees China as the future global leader in solar energy, followed by the United States. Over half of the world’s total energy capacity will be situated at the final consumers’ location – whether households, shopping centres or industries.

Commenting on the report, Brian Smithers, strategic development director of electrical supplies firm Rexel UK, said that public acceptance of solar was a key roadblock.

“Reports like this which show solar can be a long-term viable option are extremely helpful,” said Smithers.

“As solar becomes better understood and cheaper, individual uptake will increase, which in turn will support understanding and acceptance of solar as a normal part of the world’s energy mix, a win-win situation.
“Ten years ago fitting rooftop solar was the preserve of the eco warrior; now it is becoming increasingly seen as the financially sensible thing to do.”

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Brad Allen

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