A Bright Future for Solar Power

Solar power installations picked up speed in 2009, and the trend is projected to continue thanks to falling prices and increased emphasis on renewable energy development.

solar panels

If we harnessed a mere 2.5 percent of the annual solar radiation striking southwestern land suitable for solar power plants, we could produce as much energy as the whole country currently uses.


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Solar photovoltaic (PV) cell manufacturers worldwide produced a record 10,700 megawatts of capacity in 2009 — an impressive 51 percent increase from the year before. By the end of 2009, nearly 23,000 megawatts had been installed worldwide, enough to power 4.6 million U.S. homes.

China manufactured 3,800 megawatts of solar photovoltaics in 2009, leading all countries for the second straight year. Rounding out the top five producers were Japan in second place, Taiwan in third, Germany in fourth and the United States in fifth.

While China now manufactures more than a third of the world’s photovoltaic cells, most Chinese consumers cannot yet afford the technology. Ninety-five percent of China’s production is exported, mainly to Germany, which installed a record 3,800 megawatts of PV in 2009, more than half the total amount installed worldwide. Italy was first runner-up in newly installed photovoltaics, followed by Japan, then the United States.

Over the past decade, installed PV capacity has grown 16-fold worldwide, in large part due to government incentives encouraging the use of solar power. Although PV production and installation costs have fallen substantially over time, solar incentives will continue to be necessary until solar reaches grid parity (price competitiveness) with heavily subsidized fossil fuels.

The most important incentive to date for the solar industry is the feed-in tariff, which guarantees generators of renewable electricity — including homeowners, private firms and utilities — a long-term purchase price for each kilowatt-hour they produce. This powerful incentive to invest in renewables has now been adopted by approximately 50 countries.

Nowhere has the feed-in tariff been more effective than in Germany. This premium payment for solar electricity has not only spurred Germany to preeminence in installed photovoltaic capacity, it has also helped grow their domestic solar industry. Deutsche Bank estimates that feed-in tariffs had driven 75 percent of world photovoltaic installations as of 2008.

The United States has no national feed-in policy. Instead, federal tax credits, along with state and local programs, have been the main drivers of U.S. photovoltaic growth. One example is renewable portfolio standards, which require utilities to get a certain percentage of their electricity from renewables.

While global interest in small-scale solar installations keeps growing, the photovoltaic landscape is evolving to include utility-scale, multiple-megawatt solar parks. In September 2010, a newly expanded, 80-megawatt park in Ontario, Canada, overtook a plant in central Spain to become the largest operational PV power plant in the world. The United States has 23 projects ranging from 100 to 5,000 megawatts under development in the arid Southwest. But these projects simply scratch the surface of that region’s potential: If we harnessed a mere 2.5 percent of the annual solar radiation striking southwestern land suitable for solar power plants, we could produce as much energy as the whole country currently uses.

With costs dropping, economies of scale growing, and governments realizing the benefits of this limitless, climate-friendly resource, the future for solar power looks brighter than ever.

4/22/2011 12:52:12 AM

Why all the fascination for chemical PV technology? Glowing predictions of a solar PV future neglect to mention the hidden costs: toxic substances used during panel production & an unresolved toxic recycling nightmare. Here in Michigan's upper peninsula, we average 5+ hours of sunlight per day. Even during our long winters, our solar trough will generate enough heat to power our homebuilt ORC Tesla turbogenerator (around 38% efficiency at the turbine), with enough left over for solar baking, hot water, etc. Solar CHP delivers the best efficiency - no incentives needed.

4/1/2011 10:35:43 PM

The waste of electrical transmission makes it better to put the photo voltaic panels on roofs. When they come out with flexable solar rolls that can act as solar panels and take the place of shingles we will see a frantastic upsurge in solar electric instalations. The cost of instalation is a major cost of solar right now. If it was something a home owner could install himself there would be an dramatic drop in price. Probably at least in half. And if the homeowner needed a new shingles on the roof anyway there would be another 25% reduction in cost of the solar if it could act to make electricity and be waterproof. The only reson they are doing big solar farms is because of the drop in instalation cost on a big project.

suzanne horvath
4/1/2011 11:50:14 AM

As technology continues to evolve, there will be more efficiency. If more houses were using solar power, the demand for electricity would reduce or at least not increase. What about all those bare commercial rooftops? There are plenty of ways to locate PV arrays on existing structures without new installations covering 46,000 sq.miles. And if we just start to plan ahead, we may be able to reduce our dependence on oil. Why only 6hrs of adequate sun in the SW? I'm excited about the new technologies and hope we can harness this within a reasonable cost. Besides tech, we need creativity. In Spain they put solar panels on the roofs of mausoleums in a cemetery. They're not obvious when you're on the ground.

t brandt
2/18/2011 6:35:36 PM

The US uses a little over 4000 Tera-watt-h of electrical energy each year. The solar energy striking the surface (in full sun) is about 100W/sq ft. In the SW, you get about 6 h of adequate sun per day. The conversion rate for PV installations is an abysmal 15%. That all adds up to covering about 46,000 sq miles of land with PV cells- about 1/3 the area of Arizona to supply our energy needs. US automotive fuel usage is a little more than our electric power usage- so we'd need to more than double that land area covered by PV installations to cover that need if we are to go with electric autos. Given that loss of habitat is the biggest problem facing Nature, maybe change of lifestyle, not change of technology, is the way to go.