One Third of World’s Energy Could Be Solar by 2060, Predicts Historically Conservative IEA

The International Energy Agency is notoriously conservative on projections for renewable energy. The agency has embraced the need for more clean electricity and fuels to address climate change and peak oil, but its outlook for the future is usually far more conservative than how reality plays out.

So when an official at the IEA says we could get up to one third of our global energy supply from solar photovoltaics, concentrating solar power, and solar hot water by 2060, that’s a fairly big piece of news. But even that projection may be conservative.

Speaking to Bloomberg News, the head of IEA’s renewable energy unit explained said he thought the target is feasible:

“The strength of solar is the incredible variety and flexibility of applications, from small scale to big scale,” Paolo Frankl, the agency’s head of renewable energy, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Economic activity will shift toward the sunnier zones around the equator by 2050, making solar energy a viable power source for most of the global economy, the report said. Those regions will be home to almost 80 percent of the human race by the middle of the century, compared with about 70 percent today, and their energy needs will be higher as living standards in countries such as Brazil and India approach those of the U.S. and Europe.

The IEA is clearly responding to the fast-changing world of solar energy. It has released a new publication, Solar Energy Perspectives, that mirrors one of its flagship research products, Energy Technology Perspectives.

But in its recent World Energy Outlook, IEA barely gave solar much attention. The organization predicted fairly modest growth in the solar PV and CSP sector through 2035, with a projection that it would only make up 4.5% of electricity supply.

While solar only makes up a fraction of the global electricity supply today, the downward cost curve of technologies is pushing it toward a breaking point. By sometime in 2012, the installed cost of a crystalline-silicon solar PV system over 1 MW in the U.S. could dip to around $2.50 a watt. At around 2$ a watt we could cost-competitively meet around 30% of global electricity supply, says solar expert and Carbon War Room CEO Jigar Shah.

Shah believes solar can reach a 5% penetration level in the U.S. by 2020, with cost reductions coming mostly from innovations in hardware and installation, not dramatic improvements in the lab.

While the IEA is far less ambitious in its projections, the agency seems to agree that a “systems-based approach” to manufacturing and installation will be the key driver to reaching high penetration levels of different solar technologies. And rather than focus on specific subsidies for solar in the long-term, IEA says the most important incentive will be a price on carbon.

Solar is clearly proving itself without a price on carbon. With an effective pricing regime in place, a 30% penetration would almost certainly be low.

JR:  I’m not quite sure I agree with the IEA that “Economic activity will shift toward the sunnier zones around the equator by 2050.”   They seem to have forgotten global warming, which is going to make many of those sunny areas increasingly uninhabitable by mid-century (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“). Fortunately, you can string high-voltage DC power lines from the deserts.

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17 Responses to One Third of World’s Energy Could Be Solar by 2060, Predicts Historically Conservative IEA

  1. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Imagine what could be done if the climate catastrophe was addressed as it ought to be, with a wartime concerted and co-ordinated drive to develop technologies and implement them? The miracles of production and technological advance (radar, nuclear weapons, rocketry etc)achieved by all the WW2 parties in the drive to destroy one another, could be replicated, for good, if only politicians were fit to recognise our plight. I assume that this is due to a deficiency of intelligence, but worse motivations cannot be discounted. ‘Leaving it to the market’ means leaving it to the weight of money, which means leaving it to the rich, who have trillions at stake in fossil fuel ‘assets’, so that is the road to species suicide.

  2. Zach says:

    I believe that the continuation of these VERY encouraging trends, as well as a price on carbon, could be the key to solving this problem.

    Price on carbon would encourage aggressive energy efficiency in the short-to-mid term (the low-hanging fruit), and at the same time speed of the deployment of renewables to the point where they would become highly cost-competitive.

    People keep saying it will be “hard” to do this, or will require major sacrifices, etc. But I’ve seen every indication that an 80% reduction (from 1990 levels) is very possible with the right incentives in place. It should be seen as a major economic opportunity.

  3. Mark Shapiro says:

    The panels themselves are already below $1/Watt. That leaves two huge entreprenurial opportunities:

    1) Building integration, to reduce or eliminate installation costs;

    2) Electrical integration, around a simple 12V or 24V DC standard to connect DC PV to DC storage batteries and DC uses like electronics and LED lighting. Difficult? It has already been done for boats! A DC standard would just eliminate the barriers and costs to widespread adoption.

  4. Marty says:

    Just look at the installed cost of $2.50/Watt and imagine what that will do. We’re already seeing this price in the US, China and Germany. Germany is even achieving prices of ($2.25 to $2.75/Watt) in large rooftop (200 KW) situations.

    You guys need to re-evaluate this Carbon business. You don’t need a legislated answer to the Carbon problem when we have an engineered answer that’s economically competitive. Think about it. If you could install PV for $2.50/Watt at the residential level that means a sensibly sized 4 KW system that covered a significant portion of your electricity demand would cost you 10 thousand dollars. You’d start saving money from day 1. This price is well within the capabilities of the middle class. Especially, when the banks start recognizing the low-risk nature of this investment and start competing for loan customers with attractive low interest loans that are as easy to get as a car loan.

    The economics of PV are enough. You really don’t need to be clouding up the debate with this Carbon mantra. 90% of homeowners won’t install a PV system because of Carbon – they’ll do it because of price. That’s the truth. It’s unfortunate to me that 90% of the advertising comes from this Carbon angle. It’s got too much emotional baggage. It’s counterproductive. Just drop it already and take a smarter path. You guys should be helping out on the regulatory end trying to make it easier to install PV systems by removing red-tape and fake utility barriers. This is a serious challenge in and of itself but it’s not nearly as grand-plan challenging as your Carbon price schemes. Jeez… Help out where the help is needed and constructive. You get your answer to Carbon and World Salvation as a side benefit. I’m serious. Start marketing solutions rather than problems.

  5. Leif says:

    I am proud to say that 2.25 of those kW are in my back yard. They have provided me free power throughout the summer plus providing a months worth of credits to off set some of my winter load here at 48 deg. N Lat. in the NW. That value was produced in my back yard and recycled in my community. Not making the already rich richer or costing you interest on a spiraling National Debt or in the pockets of foreign dictators of questionable morals. Yes, I invested ~$25,000 but the environmental mitigation value of that will be over 4::1 and will be worth over $100,000 to you all by 2020 and increasing each year after. In addition ~80% of that investment will be returned to my coffers by that same year because of generous feed in tariffs both state & federal. Thank you all. Even then your investment is not for nothing as I have helped fund the start up costs of the Green Awakening Economy and lowered the costs to you and yours, employed local skilled labor and not polluted the commons like some I know. All real value to the 99%, not support of the ecocidal fossil industry leaving you with a polluted environment and quite likely fractured earth life support systems.

  6. Mark Shapiro says:

    Joe’s on the case — he’s doing both right here. RMI is working on reducing the barriers to PV, too.

    And as soon as PV starts getting built into roofs, it will take over. But PV needs a big push, as do efficiency, other renewables, etc.

  7. bill waterhouse says:

    Yes. And as boatowners have learned, we could get by quite nicely with solar panels and wind generators using highly energy efficient devices. For example, what if we just used our iPads and turned off our giant TVs?

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I agree Zach, but am more realo-pessimistic. We need a 100% decarbonisation as fast as humanly possible, then massive sequestration of the excess greenhouse gases (by massive reforestation and other methods)then a couple of centuries of hard graft repairing our ravaged planet. It would be great fun, too.

  9. Yes, we are going to 100% carbon free far sooner than anyone is ready for it. Even Bill Gates says we have to hit ZERO carbon emissions. And Hansen says we have to suck a bunch back out via reforestation, better ag practices and he thinks by biomass powerplants with CCS. Carbon capture isn’t going to be for coal…it is going to be for biomass as a geoengineering solution.

    And I agree such an effort actually would be fun because it would be creating hope and life instead of the miserable slide off the cliff we are participating in now.

  10. Yeah, I’ve got about 2.25kW also on my roof even a bit north of you. Loving it. Would have loved it more at current prices but early-adopters rock. So I’m cool with that.

    One benefit I rarely hear people talk about is that my excess goes to my neighbors via the grid. I like the idea of being a local supplier of clean energy to people I know when I’ve got extra.

    If you’ve got a roof to do it, now would be a good time to help “deploy, deploy, deploy”

  11. adelady says:

    Never fear. The advertising industry is already on the case in Oz.

    The theme is “I’m not trying to save the world. I’m saving up for …. ” across a couple of different family scenarios.

    And I do think the middle class is the right target for such things. Add up the cost of a granite benchtop for the kitchen and a super sized 3D TV and you’d be better off investing in solar PV. The big difference being that your savings from the solar installation could contribute to buying other household luxuries rather than forestalling them as the expensive equipment does.

  12. TAFL says:

    The global PV panel industry has now in the end of 2011 capacity to produce (delivery may be less as end-user purchases are attenuated) about 50 GW (name-plate) of modules yearly, and this will likely grow to 75 GW yearly in the next 5-7 years. This is huge already, so I cannot understand the conservative forecasts of market uptake.

  13. Raul M. says:

    Saw the strangest thing the other day.
    Pretty police officer dressed in her dark blue uniform with all the heavy and hot extras during the heat of summer just as she was supposed to with us dressed in light colors and light weight clothing standing in the sunshine. Anyway, her being in good shape still went to her police car and started the engine so she could turn on the AC, or so I think.
    Must be disheartening for her to have to disengage from good conversation to seek the AC comforts.
    But they only have the one way to dress even in the heat of summer in the south.
    So, if it has to be that style of clothing where they will feel the need for shelter quickly and the police car with the AC on is the shelter shouldn’t they have some solar panels on the roof of the car just to keep the AC running.
    Looking at cost of the engine supply AC the elec. Generated from solar panels would beat the cost of the gas engine running. Anyone who has had to pay for the gas to an elec. generator knows that the fuel bill adds up fast.
    Also it must be disheartening for her to be left with the claim that she is leaving the engine running because she is always ready to go stop some crime. Cuss hunny we are being peaceful.

  14. Raul M. says:

    Oh, and a motorcycle policeman weaning dark and heavy during the summer in Florida, well like they like to say it’s government in the sunshine.
    It’s just that most people would think that it gets hot soon even wearing light colors.
    Even the military picks light colors in the sunny climes.
    What is that a tradition of discomfort in keeping the peace?

  15. dick smith says:

    Pete Stark (d-cal.) introduced a fee-and-dividend bill last month with 12 co-sponsors. The fee. $10 per ton at the first point of carbon sale, increasing by $10 per ton/year for 10 years. The dividend. Redistribute all fees on a per capita basis (1/2 shares for 2 kids/family). James Hansen is a strong fee/dividend supporter. Sure like to see some support from this blog.

  16. David B. Benson says:

    Unfortunately, peak power (kWp or MWp or even GWp) has to be multiplied by the capacity factor (CF). Solar PV has a capacity factor of up to 25% (in the least cloudy deserts). So the fairly compare to NPPs with a typical CF of 92%, multiple the nameplate rating by the achieved CF; 18 GWe from solar PV ain’t anywhere near the actual output from 18 NPPs with 1 GW nameplate rating.

    Also, running HVDC lines over long distances won’t work as well as one might think; look at the actual historical data for the Bonneville to southern California HVDC transmission line.

    That said, it remains the case that solar PV is certainly transforming the generation and distribution of electricity, especially in the sunnier climes. The electrical utility industry will have to respond to these changes. You can help via letters to your state senators and representatives, with copies to your utility commissioners and your retail, utility’s public relations office.

  17. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    A 50 years from now prediction for solar energy no body takes seriously. What is needed is what will be solar energy impact before 2020.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India