November 03, 2014

100 Megawatts Per Day: Solar Power on the Rise

The International Energy Association recently reported that solar power could generate 16% of the world’s energy by 2050. This post describes some of the IEA’s findings and describes steps the United States should take to make this vision into a reality.

The International Energy Association (IEA) recently published an updated report on global deployment of solar power. The report, Technology Roadmap: Solar Photovoltaic Energy 2014 Edition, responds to significant acceleration in the solar power development by projecting that in 2050 solar power should generate 16% of the world’s energy. This blog post highlights key findings from the IEA report, assesses progress in the United States toward the IEA report’s goal, and recommends several measures that states and the federal government should take to promote U.S. leadership in solar development.

Dramatic reductions in the price of solar power and resulting accelerated solar development drove the IEA to substantially revise the Technology Roadmap for solar power that the agency had published in 2010. The IEA begins its report by noting the outstanding fact that the world has added more solar power in the last four years than in the prior forty. In 2013 alone, solar deployment proceeded at a remarkable rate of 100 megawatts per day. To put that number in perspective, the Solar Energy Industries Association (a U.S. trade association) calculates that on average 1 megawatt of solar power generates enough electricity to meet the needs of 164 U.S. homes. 100 megawatts of solar power is thus enough, on average, to power 16,400 U.S. homes. Especially considering that the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranks the United States 13th in energy efficiency (behind China and India), deploying enough power to satisfy 16,400 U.S. homes is not bad for a day’s work.

Yet despite this excellent progress, far more solar development is necessary for the world to reach the IEA’s goal of having 16% of the world’s energy come from solar power. In fact, the IEA notes that annual solar deployment will need to grow to an average of 124 gigawatts per year, which is roughly four times the pace of deployment in 2013. Fortunately, the IEA also notes that due to projected continuing decreases in the price of solar power, the annual average investment will only need to be twice the level it was in 2013.

Reaching this level of increased and sustained investment in solar power will require significant policy measures from nations around the world. Although solar power has already become cost-competitive in some markets, the IEA notes that in many regions policy support will be necessary to help solar power’s costs continue to decline, especially in markets where electricity prices do not internalize greenhouse gas emissions or other environmental harms.

The greatest single message in the IEA’s report is the call for stable policies to promote solar power (similar to the call I made in an earlier blog). Here, the United States falls quite short. For example, as I discussed several weeks ago, federal tax credits for renewable energy are short-lived, and their unpredictability leads to boom-and-bust development cycles. Meanwhile, U.S. states offer dramatically varying support for solar power, and for renewables more generally. Some states have ambitious programs, like California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, or New Jersey’s requirement that builders of new homes offer to install solar power. Other states offer no incentives at all. The lack of stable, certain policies in the United States is likely one reason that the IEA reports that China and Japan outpace U.S. solar development. Similarly, Bloomberg News reports that less developed nations are developing renewable energy at twice the pace of wealthy nations like the United States. We can do better, and we should.

Nevertheless, there is cause for significant optimism as well. A projection by Deutsche Bank, as relayed by Bloomberg News, reveals that solar power will be cost-competitive in 47 U.S. states by 2016. This progress should drive dramatic new solar power development. Some movement is already underway. For example, Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the Southern Company (one of the largest owners of coal-fired power plants in the country) recently issued plans to develop solar power for army bases in Georgia. Southern Power has been expanding its solar holdings, now owning 338 MW of solar capacity. Duke Energy in North Carolina is on a similar track, recently investing in 278MW of solar capacity. Of course, this progress is a far cry from full achievement of the technical potential of solar power in the United States. For example, rooftop solar in Los Angeles could generate 19,000MW, dwarfing these utility investments. Nevertheless, the progress we are already making give us a strong foundation for future improvement and a strong cause for hope.