Could solar be the largest electricity source by 2050?

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Two reports issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggest that solar energy could generate up to 27% of the world’s electricity by 2050.

This would represent a higher share than any other energy source, including other renewable sources, nuclear and, most importantly, more than fossil fuels.

The roadmaps claim that, by the middle of the century, up to 16% of the world’s electricity could be generated by solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and a further 11% could be contributed by solar thermal electricity (STE) produced by concentrating solar power (CSP) plants. This would prevent the emission of over six billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2050.

The IEA’s Maria van der Hoeven spoke optimistically about the potential for these systems to succeed in meeting the planet’s energy demands: “The rapid cost decrease of photovoltaic modules and systems in the last few years has opened new perspectives for using solar energy as a major source of electricity in the coming years and decades.”

The difficulty of turning this potential into reality, however, was not lost on then-Executive Director van der Hoeven: “Both technologies are very capital intensive: almost all expenditures are made upfront. Lowering the cost of capital is thus of primary importance for achieving the vision in these roadmaps.”

It should be noted that the reports represent not so much a prediction as a challenge to policy-makers, and both include technology improvement targets and the actions and milestones required of governments and institutions to achieve this ambitious target by the middle of this century.

Both reports highlight the need for consistent, credible signs from policy-makers to increase confidence in these ventures and bring down deployment risks for investors. For the consumer, this would mean more easily accessible products from a more competitive market of companies that are able to provide 100% renewable energy.

The above would make it much easier for you to take into consideration your carbon footprint when you compare energy deals.

The Executive Director complained that where there’s “incoherence, confusing signals or stop-and-go policy cycles, investors end up paying more for their investment, consumers pay more for their energy, and some projects that are needed simply will not go ahead.”

In its early stages of deployment, PV was set up much more quickly than STE - at the end of 2013, the 137 GW of capacity amounted to 100 MW every day - mainly because of significant cost reductions. 

According to the reports, most of the growth will continue to come from PV until 2030, but each would have a complementary role and later the balance would shift considerably.

When it reaches between 5-15% of annual electricity generation, PV starts to lose value in wholesale markets. Massive-scale STE deployment could then begin because of the built-in thermal storage CSP plants are equipped with, which allows electricity to be generated at the peak of demand in the late afternoon and early evening.

PV has seen global expansion since its early stages, with China and the United States leading the way - the former far outstripping the latter. More than half its total capacity is located where the end-user is: in households, for example, or in shopping centres and industrial centres.

STE represents a huge opportunity for many emerging economies in Africa, India and the Middle East, tending to expand in areas that get a lot of sun and clear skies.

Both reports’ visions for the deployment of these technologies take updated modelling results that are consistent with the Agency’s Energy Technology Perspectives 2014 and the ‘high-renewables’ scenario outlined within it.

Both also set out in detail the main steps that need to be taken by policymakers over the next five years; which include setting long-term deployment targets, streamlining procedures surrounding getting permits and connections, and setting up schemes to offer proper remuneration that reflect the systems’ actual value.

What is the IEA?

The International Energy Agency is an independent organisation working to ensure reliable, affordable, clean energy. It was established in response to the oil crisis in the early 70s with the initial purpose of helping countries responding collectively to major disruptions to the global supply of oil.

This is still a key part of what the IEA does, but the agency has also since grown and evolved, always playing a part in the global discourse on energy issues. It does this by providing research and statistics, as well as analysis and policy recommendations for global decision-makers.

Those looking for more information on the IEA can contact its press office at ieapressoffice@iea.org.

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