UPDATE: This article originally cited a figure of 50% for solar power’s share of electricity production in 2050. This figure, found in more than one story on the subject, was a bit high even for IEA’s glowing solar scenario. The correct figure is 27%.
You think solar is growing fast? Just wait till 2050. By then, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says, solar could be the world’s main source of electricity, at over
50% 27% of total global electricity production.
It’s all laid out in the IEA’s new report, Energy Technology Perspectives 2014.
Of the solar power deployed by 2050, PV will account for 16% of global electricity production, according to the IEA’s Technology Roadmap. (The remaining 11% would be from solar thermal.) That’s up from the IEA’s projection of 11% in their 2010 roadmap.
If you’re wondering how solar will get so big when it now makes up only 0.5% of global electricity production (0.2% in the U.S.), there’s your clue. The IEA has revised its predictions because of the speed at which solar is taking off. It’s that speed that will take solar to such heights so soon.
What happened? “PV has been deployed faster than anticipated,” as the EIA puts it. Since 2010, more solar PV capacity has been added globally than in the previous four decades. At the same time, costs have fallen quickly. That’s driven more rapid deployment, which has in turn driven costs to fall more rapidly. Get the picture?
In addition, solar is becoming more common now in many more regions, including some with more sun than the European countries that have dominated solar capacity in the past. Looking to the future, China is expected to continue leading the global market — accounting for about 37% of global capacity by 2050 — followed by the U.S. As solar becomes more affordable and competitive with other energy forms, it will keep spreading. The EIA reports note that solar PV is already competitive at times of peak demand in many areas, especially those areas where peak electricity is provided by burning oil products.
The Technology Roadmap not only predicts big things for solar but also stresses the importance of changing our energy mix:
“Current trends in energy supply and use are unsustainable – economically, environmentally and socially. Without decisive action, energy-related greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions would lead to considerable climate degradation with an average 6°C global warming. We can and must change the path we are now on; sustainable and low-carbon energy technologies will play a crucial role in the energy revolution required to make this change happen.”
That means a “balanced portfolio of all renewables” including solar, though solar will be a big part of that mix.
It will take a concerted effort and the right policies to get to the 4600 GW of installed PV capacity by 2050 that the EIA roadmap envisions. Why is it worth the effort? Getting there will avoid the emission of up to 4 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 annually. The roadmap is meant to help us achieve that goal. It’s a huge win for solar that the EIA has identified it as “one of the most promising emerging technologies” to make that happen.
Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) president and CEO Rhone Resch welcomed the reports. He pointed out that solar is already the fastest-growing renewable energy source in the U.S., accounting for more than 50% of new generation capacity in the first half of 2014.
“As these reports show, the future of solar is strong,” Resch said. “Today, the solar industry employs 143,000 Americans and pumps nearly $15 billion a year into the nation’s economy. By any measurement, policies such as the federal solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), are paying huge dividends for both the U.S. economy and our environment. But, as the IEA noted, we need to maintain and even expand smart public policies in order to give solar a fighting chance against entrenched energy sources, such as fossil fuels – and we urge Congress to heed the IEA’s recommendation to create more certainty in the marketplace and secure clean, renewable energy for future generations.”
Given that the IEA is known for being conservative when it comes to renewable energy, its latest projection for solar is especially significant. Given that there will be many chances to revise outlooks even further before 2050, we can’t help but wonder how much higher solar will go.