The European Union wants to become climate neutral by 2050, Germany has set itself the same objective, but five years earlier. The Ukraine war is accelerating the pace of change: In view of the massively rising energy prices, it makes sense to produce your own electricity. An investment in photovoltaics (PV) currently pays for itself quickly.
Photovoltaics is a rapidly growing market: between 2010 and 2020, demand grew by more than 30 percent annually worldwide, according to the Fraunhofer Institute. The Ukraine war and the resulting energy uncertainty in Europe are expected to accelerate this trend. Capacities will not be able to grow at the same rate, especially since the key raw material silicon is also in demand in other contexts – such as the production of microchips.
How much energy does the world consume?
Demand for energy is growing across many countries in the world, as people get richer and populations increase.
If this increased demand is not offset by improvements in energy efficiency elsewhere, then our global energy consumption will continue to grow year-on-year. Growing energy consumption makes the challenge of transitioning our energy systems away from fossil fuels towards low-carbon sources of energy more difficult: new low-carbon energy has to meet this additional demand and try to displace existing fossil fuels in the energy mix.
This interactive chart shows how global energy consumption has been changing from year-to-year. The change is given as a percentage of consumption in the previous year.
We see that global energy consumption has increased nearly every year for more than half a century. The exceptions to this are in the early 1980s, and 2009 following the financial crisis.
Global energy consumption continues to grow, but it does seem to be slowing – averaging around 1% to 2% per year.
How much of our primary energy comes from renewables?
We often hear about the rapid growth of renewable technologies in media reports. But just how much of an impact has this growth had on our energy systems?
In this interactive chart we see the share of primary energy consumption that came from renewable technologies – the combination of hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal and modern biofuels [traditional biomass – which can be an important energy source in lower-income settings is not included].
Note that this data is based on primary energy calculated by the ‘substitution method’ which attempts to correct for the inefficiencies in fossil fuel production. It does this by converting non-fossil fuel sources to their ‘input equivalents’: the amount of primary energy that would be required to produce the same amount of energy if it came from fossil fuels. We look at this adjustment in more detail here.
In 2019, around 11% of global primary energy came from renewable technologies.
In the section above we looked at what share renewable technologies collectively accounted for in the energy mix.
In the charts shown here we look at the breakdown of renewable technologies by their individual components – hydropower, solar, wind, and others.
The first chart shows this as a stacked area chart, which allows us to more readily see the breakdown of the renewable mix, and relative contribution of each. The second chart is shown as a line chart, allowing us to see more clearly how each source is changing over time.
Globally we see that hydropower is by far the largest modern renewable source [since traditional biomass is not included here]. But we also see wind and solar power are both growing rapidly.
The previous section looked at the energy output from solar across the world. Energy output is a function of power (installed capacity) multiplied by the time of generation.
Energy generation is therefore a function of how much solar capacity is installed. This interactive chart shows installed solar capacity across the world.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the sun could be the largest source of electricity by 2050, accounting for more than a quarter of worldwide power generation. The IEA estimates that solar PV systems could generate up to 16 percent of the world’s electricity by 2050 while solar thermal power—another solar technology—could provide an additional 11 percent of electricity.In the more immediate future, BloombergNEF expects new-build solar capacity to grow annually by 11 percent to 2030, with Europe and Asia to add the most capacity, though expansion in North America will be important too, thanks in particular to the U.S.’s recent climate legislation.
New-build solar panel capacity growth study for various regions based on a mid-case scenario
What’s behind solar energy’s appeal?
There are several factors driving solar’s increasing popularity.
Cheap solution: At the end of 2020, solar was the cheapest of all energy sources, taking into consideration all the costs of constructing, operating, and maintaining a solar facility over its lifetime, or the levelized cost of energy (LCOE), according to calculations by Lazard, an advisory firm. From mid-2021, rising commodity prices increased the LCOE of both wind and solar, though more slowly than for other energy sources.
Diversify a country’s energy sources: The current energy crisis in Europe has reinforced the need for countries to diversify their energy portfolios so as not to be overly dependent on one source nor on unreliable suppliers. While the immediate response to low natural gas supplies has often been more drilling, plans to roll out new solar capacity have been accelerating in many countries in Europe, as well as other regions.
For instance, Germany’s official target is now to reach 215 GW of solar capacity by 2030, up from its current 63 GW of installed capacity. This suggests a very rapid acceleration of deployment over the rest of the decade. Germany has already experienced strong demand for solar panels from residential and small commercial customers due to rising power prices and voluntary actions to reduce demand for Russian gas.
In Italy, 823 MW of solar capacity were installed during the first five months of 2022, an amount close to the capacity installed in all of 2021. Italy’s transmission system operator Terna suggests that 40 percent of the new installed capacity was for the residential segment.
Help countries reach net-zero targets: Solar panels produce electricity without creating CO2 emissions. Admittedly, the manufacturing of panels consumes a great deal of energy and creates emissions, but over their 30-year lifespan, solar panels are an attractive way to help countries realize net-zero targets.
The Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S. extended the tax credit for solar by 10 years and introduced new production-based tax credits for solar manufacturing. These are likely to be a boon to an industry that suffered from tariff-related disruption for years. On June 6, 2022, the White House postponed possible duties on silicon solar module imports from Southeast Asia for two years, which should encourage additional solar installations.
Meanwhile, China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, issued in June 2022, targets to double the capacity of wind and solar over 2021–2025 from that of 2016–2020.
Benefits from government incentives: In the U.S., the Inflation Reduction Act offers many incentives that should make the clean energy transition more affordable, including tax credits for electric vehicles, home electrificatiCO2on upgrades, heat pumps, and solar systems.
In particular, the legislation extends a 30 percent tax credit for residential solar systems that was due to end in December 2022, to January 1, 2034. Leased or purchased battery storage systems also qualify for a 30 percent credit.
Bloomberg points out that in concert, the incentives are mutually reinforcing. Electrifying a home with solar energy that is also used to charge an EV cuts fossil fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions. Battery systems enable homeowners to store excess solar energy generated during the day and tap it at night, thus avoiding high electric utility rates. Batteries can also help keep the lights and internet on during climate-driven blackouts, an increasingly common occurrence.
Canada also offers incentives, as does Australia. Europe has long been offering support for emissions-reducing initiatives, providing incentives that aim to make clean energy the most efficient and cost-effective option for households. Most European countries that subsidize residential rooftop solar panels pay homeowners a premium on the electricity their systems supply to the power grid. Some countries also offer subsidies to install solar panels, including France, Germany, and Italy.
For households, once the investment in a solar system is recouped, the electricity it generates is essentially free, except for maintenance costs and the service fees a utility charges to connect to the grid.
Solar energy is now the cheapest way to generate electricity
Average unsubsidized levelized cost of energy (LCOE), $/megawatt hour (MWh)
Supply chain bottlenecks
The solar industry didn’t escape the post-pandemic supply chain disruptions, with 2022 marking a second consecutive year of high prices for most solar components and materials.
Two-thirds of the production cost of a solar module derives from materials, including copper, steel, aluminum, and polysilicon, a common form of silicon, itself a material with semiconducting properties.
These commodities suffered from supply chain disruptions which led to higher prices. Polysilicon prices surged more than 200 percent in the two years to August 2022, with supply unable to keep up with strong global demand for solar panels as China, which accounts for approximately 80 percent of global polysilicon production, maintained strict COVID-induced lockdowns. However, after spiking earlier this year, the prices of most metals fell sharply over the summer.
Soaring polysilicon prices have encouraged producers to ramp up capacity significantly and rapidly. BloombergNEF expects a return to a state of oversupply could lead polysilicon prices to drop from the August 2022 peak of US$39.19/kg to US$15/kg in 2023 and less than US$10/kg in 2024. Such a drop in an important raw material would be reflected in the price of solar modules.
Moreover, in the U.S., the Inflation Reduction Act offers generous subsidies for domestic manufacturing. While details are still being ironed out, such support is likely to restart idled polysilicon capacity while attracting new investment for module assembly and possibly wafer production, according to BloombergNEF.
As solar is a technology that has become cheap so quickly, more efficient use of it offers much promise, such as by installing solar arrays in existing spaces, including:
Rooftops: Some retailers in the U.S. are already taking advantage of their solar-ready real estate. Walmart generates up to 30 percent of the energy for its California stores from solar panels on its rooftops. Ikea has installed solar panels at 90 percent of its U.S. outlets.
Parking lots: Disneyland Paris recently unveiled the first section of its guest parking lot solar canopy, having installed 46,000 solar panels covering 7,000 parking spaces. These will generate 10 GW of electricity per year, or enough to power a town of some 5,000 people, while offering the additional benefit of keeping cars in the shade.
Farmland: Solar modules can be built in such a way that the soil beneath them can still be used effectively for growing vegetables. A study by the University of Arizona found that these crops responded well to these structures, which can protect against heavy rain and hail, and ensure that less water is used for irrigation as the soil retains moisture longer when partly shaded. Farmers can use the solar energy on their farms, or sell it to the grid.
On water: Solar panels can be mounted on floating raft-like structures. Singapore has a floating solar farm on a reservoir that produces enough electricity to power 16,000 four-room flats. The panels are cooled by the water, which makes them more efficient and reduces water evaporation, an important advantage at a time when water is becoming ever more precious.
The solar industry ecosystem
We see several industries with the potential to benefit from the increased importance of solar as an energy source:
PV panel manufacturers and suppliers: Dominated by Chinese companies, though with some North American firms as well, this sector includes polysilicon and PV wafer producers and panel manufacturers. Some companies in this space are also focusing on storage and the maintenance of solar projects.
Solar system installers: These companies offer engineering, procurement, construction, or even storage services for solar projects for utilities or residential/commercial markets.
Solar technology: These companies provide technology for solar panels, such as inverters, which convert the solar panel’s DC (direct current) energy to AC (alternating current) power used in homes, and/or technology that can improve solar cell production yields.
Infrastructure: Most renewable infrastructure companies hold solar assets alongside other renewable assets such as wind or hydro. Nevertheless, their exposure to solar may be substantial.
Let it shine
Solar appears set to play an increasing role in our energy supply. Its many advantages, including being the lowest-cost technology and emissions-free, make it an attractive candidate, in our view, to help countries decarbonize. The energy crisis today makes this even more of an imperative. Generous incentives in Europe and now also in the U.S. should further underpin solar’s growth.