Solar Continues to Exceed Expectations and Defy Predictions

(3BL Medial/Justmeans) - Recently, I went to an event hosted by one of our local solar providers. The building and those around it were covered with solar panels. As I stood in the parking lot looking up, I thought about how the panels were quietly generating power and I reflected that I may have emitted more carbon in getting there in my car than the building did all day, or perhaps even in several days.

The reality of solar power is surprising, perhaps amazing, to anyone who stops to notice. And given solar’s phenomenal rate of growth more and more people will be noticing, until eventually it will simply become the new normal. According to GTM Research, more solar will be installed globally in the year 2020 than was cumulatively installed in the 40 years preceding it. That will bring the cumulative solar market past the 700 GW mark. That’s well over 10% of the current worldwide capacity, and more than two-thirds of what we generate here in the US. This is consistent with the MIT study that found solar potential in the multi-terawatt range, predicting as much as 25 TW of solar by 2050. That’s about a hundred times what is installed today. So much for those who say that solar will never be more than a tiny portion of our energy mix.

Let’s do a little math. According to Ramez Naam, although it took 40 years for solar to reach 1% of US capacity, the second 1% was added in just 3 years. At that rate of growth, we can expect solar to reach 50% (of today’s demand) in 17 years. Of course, demand will continue to grow, but even if it doubles, just add another three years. But it gets even better than that. Says Naam, the next 1% will take only 2 years. At that rate, it could reach 50% of capacity in just 11 years. (For comparison, the more conservative MIT study showed the installed capacity doubling roughly every five years.)

Of course, the operative word is could. It’s one thing to add new capacity, which, given solar’s continuously falling costs, will only get more attractive. It’s another thing entirely to retire existing plants. The degree to which that happens will certainly depend on what kind of carbon pricing scheme comes out of COP21 in Paris this December or beyond. Another question is, will there be space enough? After all, one shortfall of solar relative to fossil fuels is the amount of space it requires per unit of power.

We just posted a story about floating solar installations going in on ponds and lakes. There’s lots of room in that system and the cooling effect of the water improves efficiency. Look for more growth there. Another recent study found that in NYC, there was enough rooftop space to provide half the city’s electricity needs—during the daytime, of course. This is the other point that can’t be overlooked with solar. Even though the predominant power requirements occur during the day, we’ll need some combination of storage and backup to provide a complete solution. That’s another story in itself, but suffice it to say, that the battery storage industry has quite a bit cooking as well.

GTM is expecting a 36% increase in solar this year, a strong rebuild from a soft 2014. They are also expecting emerging markets to surge forward, accounting for 17% of the total within five years. Ready or not, here it comes.

Image credit: solarpanelscostx: Flickr Creative Commons