- A new report from the International Energy Agency suggests the possibility of solar power becoming the world's largest electricity source by 2050.
- It is noteworthy that IEA thinks this could happen, but the growth rates required, let alone the policies necessary to support them, will be challenging to sustain.
For me it always comes down to the numbers, without which it's impossible to grasp systems on the scale and complexity of global energy. IEA's high-solar roadmap--it's not a forecast--includes significant contributions from both solar photovoltaic power (PV) and solar thermal electricity (STE)--often referred to as concentrating solar power, or CSP--with the former making up 16% of global electricity at mid-century and the latter around 10%. As the detailed report from IEA indicates, achieving the headline result would require global installed PV capacity to grow 35-fold between 2013 and 2050, equivalent to an average of 124 Gigawatts (GW) per year of additions, peaking at "200 GW/yr between 2025 and 2040." That's a 6x increase in installations over last year.
To put that in a US electricity generation perspective, IEA projects that the US would have to hit one million GW-hours per year from PV--roughly what we currently get from natural gas power plants--by around 2035 to meet its share of the anticipated global solar buildup. US solar installations are on a record-setting pace of nearly 7 GW this year, but matching natural gas would require 120x growth in solar generation, or a sustained compound average growth rate over 25% for the next 20-plus years. That's not impossible, as recent PV growth has been even higher, but it won't be easy to continue indefinitely, especially without further improvements in the technology, and in energy storage.
The solar thermal portion of IEA's technology roadmap looks like a much tougher challenge. STE has been losing ground to PV lately, as the costs of the latter have fallen much faster than the former, for reasons that aren't hard to understand. Making PV modules cheaper and more efficient is analogous to improving computer chip manufacturing, while making STE cheaper and more efficient is more similar to manufacturing cheaper, more efficient cars or appliances.
One of the main reasons IEA appears to have concluded that STE could suddenly start competing with PV again is its inherent thermal energy storage capability, which enables STE to supply electricity after the sun has set. While I wouldn't discount that, it looked like a bigger benefit a few years ago, before electricity storage technology started to improve. Storage of all types is still expensive, which helps explain why fast-reacting natural gas power plants offer important synergies for integrating intermittent renewables like wind and solar power. However, it looks like a reasonable bet today that batteries and other non-mechanical energy storage technologies will improve faster than thermal storage in the decades ahead.
The upshot of all this is that getting to 16% of global electricity from PV by 2050 is a stretch, and the 10% contribution from STE looks like even more than a stretch. So how does that square with recent reports that Germany--hardly a sun-worshipper's paradise--got "half its energy from solar" for a few weeks this summer? A recent post on The Energy Collective does a better job of clarifying the significance of that than I could, providing links to German government data indicating that solar's average contribution in 2013 was just 4.5% of electricity--hence less than half that in terms of total energy consumption. The author extrapolates that at current rates of annual installations, it would take Germany nearly a century to get to 50% of its electricity from the sun.
Much can happen in 35 years that we wouldn't anticipate today. For now, solar PV looks like the energy technology to beat, in terms of low lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions and long-run cost trends. But whether it reaches the levels of market penetration the IEA's report suggests are possible, or tops out at less than 5% of global electricity supply, as their baseline scenario assumes, it must function within an energy mix that includes other technologies, such as fossil fuels, nuclear power and non-solar renewables. And that's true whether or not electric vehicles take off in a big way, which would significantly increase electricity demand and make the IEA's high-end solar targets even more difficult to reach.