The switch to solar power

Posted Wednesday, March 27, 2013 in Sustainable Maine

The switch to solar power

by Paul Kando

Much of the world is switching to solar power. Global solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity will more than triple by 2020. There are multiple reasons.

First, post-Fukushima, the market share of nuclear power is shrinking. In Western Europe, for example, renewable energy is steadily displacing nuclear power. To meet carbon-emissions targets and reduce fossil-fuel dependency, European nations are beefing up their renewable-energy generation — PV, wind, biomass, hydro, tidal etc. — and limiting  the growth of nuclear power in the face of widespread public opposition.

According to the report “Power Markets in Western Europe to 2020" by GBI Research, Western Europe will increase renewable installed capacity from 308.5 gigawatts (GW) in 2012 to 466.9 GW in 2020, at a compound annual growth rate of 5.3 percent. During the same period, nuclear installed capacity will only grow 0.2 percent. Germany, England, Spain and Sweden all expect negative nuclear power growth. Positive growth occurs only in Finland and traditionally nuclear-reliant France. The the market share of Western European nuclear power is predicted to drop from 14.2 percent last year to 11.3 percent by the end of the decade, while renewable power’s share is expected to grow from 38.8 percent to 49.8 percent.

Second, climate change can impact the energy infrastructure. Due to the complexity of that infrastructure, the impacts may not be obvious without closer examination. “Infrastructure” suggest a sturdy and reliable system, so its vulnerability may be shocking. In the United States, for example, the findings of last month’s draft National Climate Assessment, the most comprehensive peer-reviewed analysis of climate change in the United States, are stark reminders that "Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present." Not only will extreme weather events continue to disrupt the infrastructure, but also sea-level rise will flood a “significant portion” of the nation’s energy production and delivery system. The Gulf Coast is particularly vulnerable, as are many of California’s power plants. Distributed, renewable power generation can help improve grid security.

Third, in the past decade solar PV technology has become commercially viable, showing robust growth even during the  economic downturn. Solar PV converts solar energy into electricity using arrays of PV cells installed on rooftops, on the ground, as a building façade, or integrated into the building itself. Technological advances and growing demand for clean and sustainable energy have made solar power a rising force.

Europe led the global solar PV market in 2011, accounting for a 76.2 percent share. Germany alone was responsible for almost 40 percent of the global total. However, Italy superseded Germany in terms of annual solar capacity installed and connected to the grid that year. The “Salva Alcoa” decree, which granted solar-panel owners feed-in tariffs (FiTs) for systems installed and connected by June 2011, led to a flood of new installations. By the end of 2011, almost 9 MW of new capacity was connected to the grid in Italy. FiTs also created jobs, over 380,000 in Germany alone.

Even so, Europe is expected to lose PV market share to emerging markets in the Asia-Pacific. The number of installations is expected to grow enormously in India, China and Australia, driven by increasing government support, growing electricity demand, and government targets to reduce fossil-fuel dependency. The global annual growth rate for PV has been about 25 percent, even with the 2009 recession taken into account. Applied Materials Inc.’s annual solar-energy survey conducted last June predicted that 98 percent of the world’s population will achieve grid parity (the point at which an energy source becomes ready for widespread development without subsidies or government support) by 2020. Decreasing PV module prices and the sustainable nature of solar energy make PV cells attractive for mass power production in many parts of the world.

Constantly evolving and more efficient technology at lower prices, combined with a need for energy security and independence, will ensure the continued growth of solar PV across the world. Global installed capacity grew 77 percent from 2010 to 2011, with 27.1 GW added in 2011 alone. The global cumulative installed capacity is expected to reach 330 GW by 2020, growing at a CAGR of 16.5 percent between 2012 and 2020.

Germany accounts for around 32 percent of global PV installed capacity, maintaining its position at the forefront of market development and technological progress through various policies and programs. As a result, Germany’s installed PV capacity has leaped from a meager 2.7 GW in 2006 to 30.1 GW by 2012. Continued support though FiTs and other policies will see this total reach 48 GW by the end of the decade.

China is the largest manufacturer of PV modules in the world and it exports over 90 percent of its production. However, the Asian giant plans also to significantly increase solar installations at home, boosting capacity from 7.6 GW in 2012 to 70 GW in 2020.

Where is Maine in this solar boom? After two failed attempts, another feed-in tariff bill (LD 1085) is about to be introduced in the Legislature. Judging by the success of other countries, states, provinces and municipalities, such a law will create jobs, help reduce our fossil-fuel dependency, encourage energy conservation, and improve the reliability of our electric supply — PV systems are not vulnerable to tree branches falling on power lines. More on this next week.

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