Toward Perpetuity: Global Solar Is Skyrocketing, Will Soon Be Net Positive Energy Source

Say you wanted to build an industry from the ground up. On a macro level, the research, development, manufacturing, sourcing, distribution, and fueling would require a lot of energy. This is particularly true for energy industries. But the great thing about renewable energy is that it generally requires no fuel and starts to pay for itself as it scales.

Solar photovoltaic production consumed more energy than it produced while it was getting started. The whole industrial process has taken more energy to create than solar PV has produced — and created more greenhouse gases than it prevented — since 2000. However, a study from Stanford University found that in recent years, all the electricity produced by solar panels in the world has become greater than the energy required to produce it. Due to the amazing growth of the industry, it will generate enough energy by 2015 or 2020 to have “paid back” the energy debt accumulated while the industry got on its feet.

The energy cost to produce and install solar has been shrinking, and can be expected to continue doing so. The more the industrial process gets refined, the more the industry will grow.

As investment and technological development have risen sharply with the number of installed panels, the energetic costs of new PV modules have declined. Thinner silicon wafers are now used to make solar cells, less highly refined materials are now used as the silicon feedstock, and less of the costly material is lost in the manufacturing process. Increasingly, the efficiency of solar cells using thin film technologies that rely on earth-abundant materials such as copper, zinc, tin and carbon have the potential for even greater improvements.

In fact, just today First Solar announced it set a world record for a cadmium-telluride module conversion efficiency of 16.1 percent. This comes 6 weeks after the company broke the previous record for cadmium-telluride cell efficiency of 17.3 percent by 1.5 percent to 18.3 percent. In English, this means that thin-film solar panels, which are much cheaper to produce, are getting more and more efficient.

Looking further down the road, 10 percent of global electricity will come from solar PV by 2020. At today’s rates, it would take 9 percent of the world’s energy generation to produce solar PV, yet with the current rate of efficiency improvement, that would shrink to 2 percent. The energy deficit gap will widen even more if solar is installed in high-capacity areas like the American Southwest instead of Northern Europe. More than 40 percent of total U.S. solar capacity came online last year. The growth, nationally and globally, has been exponential:

  • Australia has reached 1 million solar rooftop installations on homes and businesses.
  • 9.8 gigawatts of solar energy projects have been announced in Latin America and the Caribbean as of this month, with the most promising projects located in Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico.
  • Austria more than doubled its capacity last year.
  • Last month, Peru inaugurated two new solar plants comprising nearly 100 MW of capacity.
  • A 400 MW solar installation on a remote Japanese island received approval and will begin construction soon.
  • In India and Italy, solar power has reached grid parity.
  • The Middle East and North Africa should reach 1 GW of demand this year, a six-fold increase.
  • The UK has seen a record-breaking start to 2013 in solar production.
  • In 2013, energy generated from solar power will be the second-largest source added to the U.S. electric grid.
  • Lancaster, CA aims to be the first solar energy exporting city in the world, largely at the behest of its Republican mayor. (He recently said “Is global warming indeed a threat? Absolutely. I may be a Republican. I’m not an idiot.“)
  • 34 MW of the 200 MW AZ Sun program will be constructed in Gila Bend, outside of Phoenix this year.

Within the next few years, solar energy will be a total net positive. And the fuel is free. Eventually solar power will contribute larger and larger portions of its power to the grid, so the factories that create and the labs that improve solar panel technology will be powered by the very same energy source it harnesses. That is as close to a perpetual motion machine as we are likely to get.

36 Responses to Toward Perpetuity: Global Solar Is Skyrocketing, Will Soon Be Net Positive Energy Source

  1. fj says:

    On a fundamental level going net positive mimics the profound nature of life itself as a breeding entity advancing its supporting environment — perhaps, in complex synergies — while advancing itself.

  2. fj says:

    It won’t be realistic putting a dollar value on this country when we start working on climate change at wartime speed.

    What we will be doing will be worth way too much to value it in dollars.

  3. Endofmore says:

    while solar is encouraging, it gives the impression that we will have energy to continue our wheeled lifestyle into infinity–as if this is our main problem
    it isnt
    humanity has pulled off a neat trick
    we found a way of transforming fuel into food, and because of that we bred our numbers way past any level at which they can be supported.
    now we encouraged to think of ‘solar energy’ as the same as other forms of energy, which is not so.
    Oil has become our foodsource
    the problem with electricity is that you can’t eat it.

  4. Martin Gisser says:

    Cadmium-telluride? Haha. Speak of clean technology. I don’t want such potential toxic waste on my roof. Sometimes roofs burn. So the stuff is not only a toxic waste disposal problem.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Ouch! But, remember, toxic sludge is good for you, and for business.

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    You can eat sunshine directly though, I plant the little fellas out every spring. I am not trying to minimize the problem of having too many people but ALL is not lost yet, ME

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Funny article. No mention of China. I wonder why not.

  8. rollin says:

    New Jersey, a relatively small state, has a gigawatt of installed PV and an additional 0.7 gigawatt approved for this year. 60 to 70 percent growth a year.

  9. Addicted says:

    Can you guys quantify how many people is too many people?nwhat is the range within which you think we should try and keep our population, given a world which derives its energy primarily from renewable sources, and not fossil fuels?

  10. Spike says:

    I read the other day that China has increased its 5 year plan target from 21GW solar to 35GW.

  11. Spike says:

    I occasionally wonder when electric cars will have their own solar panels on the roof and bonnet.

  12. Endofmore says:

    pre industrial revolution, the world population derived its sustenance entirely from renewable resources.
    At that point the population was about 1 billion
    non- renewable resources allowed that number to jump to 7 billion
    when we’ve burned all our non renewables, oil coal and gas, the world will support around 1 billion again
    and no—technology will not solve the problem. technology only works by energy input, not the other way around.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And likely to increase it further. With wind going gang-busters. Just how do the dreadful ChiComms do it? If you were to believe MSM in this country, and throughout the West, the country is a polluted cess-pit run by aggressive idiots, with the population champing at the bit for some good, old, Western ‘freedom’. The nadir, so far, was our ghastly PM Gillard, instructing the Chinese to ‘open up their financial markets’, which as we know from the GFC and the record of the last few decades, is a sure recipe for success and prosperity, fairly shared by all. The Chinese were suitably inscrutable and non-committal in public. Behind the scenes I’d imagine that stupefaction at her presumption mixed with raucous laughter was the order of the day.

  14. wili says:

    It looks to me as if there are a lot of ‘ifs’ in this study. How much farther is it physically or mathematically possible to increase efficiency, for example? Presumably, increases in efficiency can’t grow exponentially for very long–not past something well short of 100%, presumably.

    So how much would solar have to grow to reach 10% of world energy generation by 2020? What is the percentage now?

    Hard to say, since this figure was not included. Is it 1%? .1%? .01%? Less? Do we need to see doubling of capacity every single year till then? More? Less? Is anything near that likely or feasible, especially given the relatively rare elements needed for these high efficiency films? (Wiki informs me, “With an abundance in the Earth’s crust comparable to that of platinum, tellurium is one of the rarest stable solid elements in the Earth’s crust.”)

    I am enthusiastic about solar, and am glad to see it growing. But it would be more informative and less propaganda-ish to state some of these facts more clearly and bluntly.

    Another thing it would be nice to know is if there is any evidence that alternatives have actually been replacing ffs as an energy source globally, or just supplementing them, and making them cheaper. It doesn’t help to have all the renewables in the world, if we keep on burning ever-more ffs.

    Wouldn’t it make some sense to put at least as much emphasis on cutting energy demand as on increasing supply (from whatever source)?

    I experienced so delay in this getting posted, so meanwhile I searched around and found this rather optimistic looking graph, presumably projections from 2005 (please note that the left-hand scale is logarithmic, so straight lines are actually steep exponential upward curves):

    Elsewhere on wiki sights I found that, at the end of 2012, global installed wind capacity was 300 GW, solar 100 GW.

    By that measure, we seem to be ahead of even the optimistic line, which if extended would mean that solar would reach 10% of total capacity by 2015!!

    But the heading says: “The numbers shown are not installed capacity, but average output, i.e. TWh/year or GWh/year divided by 8760 hrs/year.”

    So I’m back to guessing what solar and wind’s real percentage of total capacity is right now, and what kind of trajectory it is on. Any cited info anyone has on this would be most welcome.

  15. Addicted says:

    Really? Why is energy that is obtained directly from the sun through wind/solar, not a replacement for fossil fuels?

  16. Addicted says:

    Also your assertion that technology only works on the input side is demonstrably wrong.

    A single iPhone means that things which required many devices and services earlier, can be accomplished by this one tiny device (regular mail replaced by email, no need to buy a garmin for my car, no need to buy a separate iPod, no need to buy an ebook reader, no need to buy a Nintendo game boy). How is that no reducing the output side?

  17. Bill says:

    Thank you for the article. How will solar displace the need for liquid fossil fuels? It is fair to say the solar will continue to develop into a net gain energy source – but oil and its derived products have great advantages in that they are transportable and we have a tremendous infrastructure associated with their use. Society is highly exposed to declines in the availability of liquid fossil fuels and it would be very beneficial to reduce that dependency. Also, in view of physics how does the energy derived from solar compare to that from, for example, a low sulfur oil product? From knowing that we can (hopefully) plan a restructuring of our physical infrastructure given the limits of solar and wind energy generation.

  18. Omega Centauri says:

    Popularity of solar for investors seems to vary a lot by state. I have some money via Solar Mosaic for a not yet fully funded New Jersey project. Waiting for more projects to spread the risk… They opened a California project and I foolishly waited till I got home, by which time it was fully funded.

  19. Omega Centauri says:

    At least the CdTe has gone into utility scale ground mounts. I don’t think any is on roofs.

  20. Endofmore says:

    you ignore the fact that an iphone needs raw materials, metals and plastics, they can only be produced by energy input, primarily heat. Yes we can reduce size and increase complexity, but manufacture is still governed by the same laws…..Heat input–technology output. you can’t get heat from ‘technology’. (google laws of thermodynamics)
    I doubt if there’s a single artifact that we use in our day to day living that does not have heat (energy) input in its manufacture somewhere down the line, no matter how complex its ultimate ‘technology’ output
    As to solar energy, when it is applied to crops we grow and eat—or feed to animals, we are harvesting the sun’s energy indirectly to get our daily intake of calories as food. this powers our bodies.
    Mankind has used oil and gas (which is fossilised sunlight) and converted it into fertiliser. this boosted the land output in such a way that it fed more people than it would have without fertiliser. Hence world population is now 7 billion
    Converting sunlight into electricity is not the same thing, and will not provide the feedstock or tractor fuel and transport for our food supply needs.
    as I said—you can’t eat electricity

  21. Roger Lambert says:

    You can’t imagine an electric fleet?

    I see electric cars and semi-trucks powered by inductive coils buried in the roads themselves. I see mag-lev trains powered by electricity, traditional trains powered by electric third rails or overhead lines. I see boats and airplanes powered by net carbon-neutral biofuels.

    Don’t limit your imagination by current paradigms.

  22. Roger Lambert says:

    We have not even begun to deploy renewable energy on a scale and at a pace that will allow us to survive as a modern civilization. And we have precious few years remaining to us to accomplish these goals.

    I feel this is because we continue to foolishly insist that the development of renewable energy resources should be market-driven, ie, profitable in a fossil fuel economy. But this idea is inherently flawed, because fossil fuels are priced without any regard for their true cost to society. That cost, according to articles posted here repeatedly, is estimated to be $1240 trillion dollars by year 2100.

    In order to deploy enough renewable infrastructure, and do it quickly enough, I feel strongly that we need to ditch the free market approach, and base our energy future on large-scale Federal projects. We need the resources of our government to produce, essentially, a new National renewable energy utility company, which will be tasked with replacing every drop of fossil fuels with low-cost green electricity.

  23. Roger Lambert says:

    ” How will solar displace the need for liquid fossil fuels? “

    A single large-scale solar PV project, sited in the open spaces of the American Southwest where the sunshine is optimal, could generate enough electricity to replace every single calorie of fossil fuels consumed by our country. All of it.

    It would require about 460 billion standard PV panels, which currently have a wholesale cost of about one dollar each. In twenty years, that cost will likely be substantially less.

    Exxon Mobil alone is making $45 billion dollars a year in pure profit, so I think you can see that we could easily spend just what we spend on gasoline for our cars and finance our renewable energy future without much effort at all.

    Large-scale projects are by far the least expensive way to generate renewables, and that same economy of scale means that they can be erected quickly.

  24. Endofmore says:

    Roger Lambart
    I can ”see” myself levitating the Mars
    but it aint going to happen
    All your visions centre around continuation of a wheeled lifestyle.
    Whatever the weight of an object, its movement is governed by the laws of physics—ie you have to put a certain amount of energy in to get movement out.
    your imagination sees movement on wheels which theoretically can be electric driven, but you still havent addressed the problem of converting electricity into food
    Empty food trucks moving around still wont deliver any food to supermarkets
    Im afraid it’s wish science.

  25. Endofmore says:

    governments don’t have any resources–they only have taxpayers money
    taxpayers money is entirely the product of the energy throughput of the society in which they live—ie, taxes on the production and sale of commodities
    as all commodities ultimately rely on energy surplus (we extract ‘stuff’ out of the ground and turn it into more ‘stuff’ we can buy and sell) then anything funded by taxpayers money must ultimately be dependent on raw energy itself.
    Which in the case of our established infrastructure, means oil coal and gas
    When they were cheap, our system worked. Now they are expensive, our society is falling apart.
    we are scrambling around to find ‘alternatives’ to keep things moving, insisting the the government spends money to do it.
    We ignore the source of that money

  26. Roger Lambert says:

    A “wheeled lifestyle”??

    You think we need to give up wheels to grow food? What are you talking about?

    Btw, we don’t need oil to make food – the sun has been giving all the energy that green plants need to make our food, and has been doing it for billions of years.

    I’m afraid you are making no sense to me. Could you explain yourself with different words?

  27. Roger Lambert says:

    Taxpayer money is all we need to buy, install, and deploy renewable energy infrastructure.

    We don’t need fossil fuels, nor can we afford to burn fossil fuels, in order to have a safe, productive and happy future.

    This fetish of yours for interpreting everything as a closed energy system is getting annoying.

  28. Endofmore says:

    A ‘productive’ future?
    producing what exactly?
    Wherever you are sitting—look around you.
    there won’t be a single object that does not have embedded within it a proportion of oil coal or gas
    Get rid of fossil fuel, and you will find yourself sitting naked on bare earth, starving to death.
    but to press on to the food problem
    yes the sun has created our biosphere over several billion years, but the earth functioned as a closed energy loop system
    ie–whatever fell over and died provided an energy source for something else–remember that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form
    Something has to die in order for you to live. You absorb the energy from another life form to prolong your own energy output. You are part of the loop whether you like it or not

    During all those millennia, not all of that biomass was consumed
    vast amounts of it became fossilised, ready for mankind to dig up and burn later, either in machines (our wheels), or to boost our food supplies and breeding chances
    But it was still sun-energy, and that’s what’s heating up the planet right now
    What took 200m years to lay down, we have released in 200 years to give us our wheeled lifestyle, a colossal food supply, and a seemingly unlimited amount of money
    except that the money was merely a token of the energy-output system. without it, money is only coloured bits of paper
    You may have heard of the alternative, it’s called a cornucopia. If you can tell me where to find one, . it would make me very happy

  29. fj says:

    Making streets safe completely safe will cause a profound reduction in emissions.

    Making transport and transit vehicles small and light enough to be easily powered by human would have a terrific impact on emissions with minimum build out emissions as well.

  30. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Spot on Roger. The false assumptions that the Earth is a closed system, and consists of closed systems, leads to some very strange and misleading conclusions, ME

  31. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Endofmore, that 1B figure is extremely rubbery, e.g. the Black Death, only 400 years before, knocked off about 33%, and estimates from the non-European world are even more doubtful, ME

  32. Endofmore says:

    1 billion (give or take) is the generally accepted figure for world population around 1800

  33. Artful Dodger says:

    Why would you do that? It’s a terrible waste of a valuable resource. Would you want your own coal-fired power plant? Or would it be better to share the resource with oh, say, an electrical grid-type thingy?

  34. Artful Dodger says:

    Bill asks “how will solar displace the need for liquid fossil fuels?”

    Fossil fuels are easily replaced by renewable liquid fuels. There is really only 10% of the economy that benefits from the superior gravimetric energy density of liquid fuels.

    Liquid fuels can all be either synthesized or grown as biofuels. The US Navy is already doing it with jet fuel.

    The key is the carbon cycle. What we emit into the atmosphere must be taken back out, and that includes CO2. Now you can burn fossil carbon, but you must extract the same amount of C02 from the atmosphere afterward.

    But most of the world economy will run just fine, probably better, on grid provided electricity. Which includes micro-grids… ;)

  35. Kent Doering says:

    As an ex-pat in Germany- I am watching new developments push the efficiency of standard silicon – from about 18% to over 45%, while the price per produced square meter of panel is dropping thanks to “heat recapture” technology. Solar will “nergy amortize” in under 4 years.