SOLAR SUPERPOWER: Photovoltaic and concentrated solar power could account for 22 percent of global electricity production by 2050 under the right conditions, the IEA reports. Image: ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
Solar panels could produce electricity at the same price as coal- and natural gas-burning power plants by the end of this decade if countries direct resources at this rapidly advancing corner of the energy industry, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.
IEA, composed mostly of European nations and the United States, found in twin studies released yesterday that solar photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP) together could account for about 22 percent of global electricity production by 2050 under the right conditions.
Today, solar power meets a tiny fraction of the world's electricity needs, but that could change in the next decade, IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka said at a conference in Valencia, Spain. "Long-term-oriented, predictable solar-specific incentives are needed to sustain early deployment and bring both technologies to competitiveness in the most suitable locations and times."
Countries such as Japan, Germany, Spain and the United States and other potentially major markets should focus on creating more incentives that can foster technology advancements, urged Tanaka and the IEA report. Building better solar panels that drive down the upfront cost of a roof installation and the cost of erecting big solar arrays to feed electric utilities are major challenges for the industry.
Solar panel manufacturers and service companies in the solar power business have increased in numbers and strengthened their balance sheets in recent years. U.S. government support in the form of loan guarantees and grants out of the Department of Energy also are helping certain corners of the sector.
In Europe, a rapid expansion of residential and commercial solar power use in the past five years stimulated the global industry. Last year, however, solar ran up against political scrutiny of lavish public subsidies. That has put the brakes on the expansion this year.
To navigate the turbulence, which IEA sees as a short-term blip, and to compete with China's heavily subsidized manufacturers, analysts expect to see more consolidation in the industry.
North America expected to lead world's production
In February, the U.S. government announced a $1.37 billion conditional loan guarantee for Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy Inc. to build three utility-scale solar thermal power plants in the Mojave Desert. If the project secures permits from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the California Energy Commission and is built, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project could be the world's largest concentrated solar power system.