Photo: Russ Ferriday/Flickr
Last year was by all accounts a very good year for solar power, with the US market growing 76 percent according to the latest stats from the Solar Energy Industries Association, and global capacity doubling since 2010. There's now roughly 282 gigawatts of solar power, in both its photovoltaic and concentrating forms, installed around the world. That's a lot of theoretically carbon-free electricity.
But according to new research from Stanford University, published in Environmental Science & Technology, only now is the amount of energy produced by solar power around the world probably surpassing the energy required to make more solar power modules. That's a big threshold to cross. Just five years ago, the solar power industry consumed 75 percent more energy than it produced.
Here's an even better thing: At the rate installations are going, the energy and carbon debt incurred in making all the solar photovoltaics made to date could be paid off as soon as 2015, and certainly by 2020.
Better manufacturing methods, requiring less energy to produce and install solar PV systems, as well as creating more durable solar panels, are behind the decline. So are more efficient solar cells, which are doing a better job at converting energy from the sun into electricity. There's less energy in, more energy out, both on a solar cell level and in terms of installations overall.
If the rate of manufacturing efficiency improvements continues, by 2020, two percent of the world's electricity production will be required to continue industry growth.
Report co-author Michael Dale notes a perennial talking point regarding global solar power: Where the most solar power has been installed to date, where there's the most money to install it, and where there's the most sun, aren't in alignment.
Dale says, "At the moment, Germany makes up about 40% of the installed market, but sunshine in Germany isn't that great. So, from a systems perspective, it may be better to deploy PV systems where there is more sunshine."
Which is true. It's already playing out, more solar power in sunnier places, and will likely continue to do so in the 2020 timeframe referenced in the report.
If India's National Solar Mission plays out as planned, there will be close to 20 gigawatts of solar power installed there. It's not entirely on schedule to meet that target right now, but for the way things goes in India, it's very close. All of that is, if the whole thing doesn't get derailed by deeply duplicitous efforts by the United States to protect its own domestic solar power manufacturers, at the expensive of India's domestic solar power industry (and ultimately carbon emission reductions), all in the supposed name of free trade.
Saudi Arabia, with even more solar power potential than India, has 41 GW of solar power planned by 2032, with roughly 20 GW by 2020—albeit most of that being in concentrating solar power and not photovoltaics.
All of which is to say, lamenting that Germany has more solar power installed than any other nation today and it's not that sunny there is really a pretty backward looking statement. They may still be in the lead in eight years' time in total capacity, but the sunnier places in the world will be getting theirs by that point, too.