Asia powers into the forefront of solar revolution

| 4th February 2015
Photovoltaic cells on the Solar Library and Energy-Optimised House in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei. Image: Littleha via Wikimedia Commons.
Photovoltaic cells on the Solar Library and Energy-Optimised House in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei. Image: Littleha via Wikimedia Commons.
China has now overtaken the European Union as the largest new market for solar power, writes Paul Brown - as solar PV becomes one of the world's fastest growing industries - and one that's sure to keep on getting cheaper!
In contrast to conventional energy sources, renewable energies are still the only ones to offer the prospect of a reduction rather than an increase in prices in the future.

Solar power is on course to overtake nuclear as a primary source of electricity production as the price of photovoltaic (PV) panels continues to fall.

Mass production in China and Taiwan has helped to increase the extraordinary growth of the solar power across the world and has led to an 80% reduction in the cost of panels since 2008.

Europe, and particularly Germany and Italy, led the way in solar installation, but Asia and the US are now catching up fast.

Africa, which has the most potential to benefit from solar power, has been slow to adopt the technology, but is now embracing its possibilities - especiallin South Africa. While investment in small domestic installation continues, there has been a big increase in utilities creating large solar farms.

These are the main trends outlined in a detailed PV Status Report for 2014, released by the European Union. The report, which assesses the state of the world market and its growth in individual countries, is also scathing on the continuing subsidies for fossil fuels, which massively exceed those for renewables.

Between 2007 and 2013, IEA figures show, over $3,400 billion were spent on direct fossil fuel subsidies worldwide - excluding global producer subsidies. "With 2007 to 2013 PV system prices, this subsidy would have been sufficient to install about 880GW of PV systems worldwide, able to produce about 1,000TWh of electricity or 4.4% of global electricity demand."

And at the lower prices of 2013, with residential systems costing around $1.85/Wp, that same sum could have paid for 1,840GW of PV electricity systems - enough to supply almost 10% of the world's power.

Battery storage: encouraging progress

Developments in renewables continue to be encouraging, particularly electricity storage from solar. Using ion-lithium batteries, new technologies are being deployed to store surplus electricity generated during daylight hours, for use during evening peak periods.

On a domestic level, this makes economic sense because the cost of generating electricity at home with solar panels is now cheaper than buying it from the grid in many countries. Being able to store your own power for use at night will save money, as well as reducing peaks in national demand.

On a larger scale, the report gives examples of wind and solar generation power stations combined with battery storage, which are being tried successfully in China.

And as solar PV's proportion of total electricity supply increases, as in Germany and Italy "new technical and regulatory solutions have to be implemented to avoid running into the problem of curtailing large parts of this electricity.

"Besides conventional pumped storage options, electrical batteries are becoming increas-ingly interesting, especially for small-scale storage solutions in the low-voltage distribution grid."

In contrast to conventional energy sources, renewable energies are still the only ones to offer the prospect of a reduction rather than an increase in prices in the future.

Solar taking the lions share of investment worldwide

Solar is now the renewable of choice, overtaking wind. In 2013, solar energy attracted 53.3 % of all new renewable energy investments, a staggering $111.4 billion (€82.5 billion).

While the report gives detailed figures for individual countries only for 2013, it says that the growth of the industry continued in 2014, although it varied depending on the policies of individual governments. Asian markets were especially dynamic:

"In contrast to Europe and the Americas, where new investments in renewable energy fell by 42% and 8% respectively, new investments continued to rise in Asia / Oceania. The leading country in new renewable energy investment was China at $54.2 billion, followed by the USA at $36.7billion and Japan at $28.6billion."

The European Union (EU) as a whole saw investments of €25.2billion, led by the UK with €9.2billion - the only European market with increased investments - well ahead of Germany at €7.5billion.

Japan recorded the largest change in 2013, with an 80% increase compared to 2012 - partly spurred by the nuclear accident at Fukushima in March 2011, which made the safe and reliable option of solar more attractive.

Over five years South Africa saw the strongest growth at 96% followed by Japan (57%) and Australia (32%) - whereas the EU saw a decline of 6%.

Investments in 2013 were used for installing 87 gigawatts (GW) of new clean energy generation capacity, bringing the total to 735 GW, and thus capable of producing more than 1,700 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity - or 70% of the electricity generated by nuclear power plants worldwide.

Africa's vast solar resources

The report says: "Despite Africa's vast solar resources and the fact that in large areas the same photovoltaic panel can produce on average twice as much electricity in Africa than in Central Europe, there has been only limited use of solar photovoltaic electricity generation up until now."

But according to the latest study, solar PV electricity is now the cheapest electricity option for more than one-third of the African population.

Until recently, the main application of PV systems in Africa was in small solar home systems. Since 2012, however, major policy changes have occurred, and a large number of utility-scale PV projects are now in the planning stage.

Overall, the (documented) capacity of installed PV systems in Africa had risen to more than 600 MW by the end of 2013 - a tenfold increase compared with 2008. In 2014, the installed capacity is expected to more than double.

Currently, the two biggest markets are South Africa and Algeria, but all African countries are either potential or emerging markets.

Future directions

With increasing shares of PV electricity in the grid, notes the report, "the economics of integration is of growing importance" and urgent attention needs to be focused on issues such as:

  • "Development of new business models for the collection, sale and distribution of PV electricity, such as development of bidding pools at electricity exchanges, virtual power plants with other renewable power producers, and storage capacities;"
  • "Adaptation of the regulatory and legal procedures to ensure fair and guaranteed access to the elec-tricity grid and market."

"The cost of electricity generated by a PV module has dropped to below EUR 0.04/kWh", the report adds. This means that now the main cost component of solar power relates to getting the electricity from the module to where it is needed.

"Therefore, new innovative and cost-effective electricity system solutions overall for the integration of PV electricity are needed to establish photovoltaic electricity as an integral part of sustainable energy solutions."

But the investment is definitely a good one, not least as far as consumers are concerned: "in contrast to conventional energy sources, renewable energies are still the only ones to offer the prospect of a reduction rather than an increase in prices in the future."



Paul Brown writes for Climate News Network.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.



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