May 26, 2009
The answer is: yes, though wind power is still far ahead. It will therefore take 20 years or more before the globally installed solar capacity will exceed that of wind power.
At the end of 2008, the global capacity of wind energy exceeded 100 GW, about half of which installed in Western and Northern Europe, the other half being concentrated in western USA and northern China.
In Europe wind energy encounters increasing physical obstacles because of scarcity of empty space with strong and regular wind. The industry therefore has to go off-shore where a huge untapped potential exists, though fraught with technical difficulties. The pace of expansion is therefore likely to slow down in the next decade.
Solar power generation has come a very long way since its beginnings in the 1970s. This goes in particular for photovoltaic power generation, while the state of art of the thermal-solar power generation has hardly advanced since the 1980s, when the first plants were established in California, which continue to operate.
In the last few years, technological advance for PV has been breath-taking. It led to a spectacular decline of production costs and a diversification of inputs, to different types of silicium cells and, more recently, organic materials. The industry expects rapid technological progress to continue for the next years and production costs to halve by 2015.
Despite the rapid technological progress, the global installed capacity of PV power was no more than 10 GW at the end of 2008, roughly 10 of global wind power.
For the time being Spain dominates the PV market. Thanks to generous feed-tariffs it has installed about 1 GW in 2008 only. Italy is intent to follow suit, helped by exorbitant feed-in rates (0.7 € per kWh).
Thermal solar power generation is also expected to get a new best in the coming 10 years.
· The Australian government has decided to go solar. It has more empty space with ideal solar radiation than either the USA or Europe. With government support a private consortium will build a series of solar thermal power plants in southern Australia with a capacity of 1 GW to be completed by 2015.
· Californian utilities, which have pioneered solar thermal power 25 years ago, will be back in force with a network of more modern plants of a combined capacity of 1.3 GW.
· Algeria and Morocco have also entered the field, though with capacities of much less than 1 GW.
PV electricity has the charm of generating power through solar radiation, even with clouded skies, without resorting to steam. It is extraordinarily flexible; it can generate electricity on roofs, in walls or on barren soil. The capacity of PV power plants can range from 1 to 100 MW without impairing energy efficiency. Most important, PV electricity does not need to be linked to the grid. PV panels can be incorporated directly in buildings, which might then become independent from the grid
Solar thermal plants generate electricity through steam like any fossil or nuclear power plant. The technology is therefore optimal for large grid-linked units, with capacities exceeding 50 MW. Thanks to the available heat it can easily, though at an extra cost, also generate electricity over night. Last not least, it is presently still substantially cheaper to generate than PV electricity. But it may lose its cost advantage in the coming 20 years, both for generation and storage of electricity.
In the final analysis, the issue is not who will win the race. Humanity will desperately need all alternative energies – solar thermal, PV, wind, hydro, biomass and even nuclear– and combine them optimally through intelligent grids and storage systems.
Europe cannot rely on wind energy only. There is not enough wind and it does not blow permanently. Nor can it rely only on PV. Northern Europe lacks sufficient sunlight during the dark winter months.
It will have no alternative but to develop PV and solar thermal power generation in the southern member countries where sunshine is plenty even during winter.
Even the ideal combination of wind and biomass in the north and west and solar in the south, through an intelligent continental grid will not be for sufficient for covering Europe’s future electricity demand.
Europe will therefore have to knock at the door of its south-MED neighbours and ask them to jointly develop the huge solar potential of the Sahara, which has more than enough sunshine and empty space to supply all Mediterranean and European countries with solar energy throughout the year.
A comprehensive solar energy partnership with its partners in the Southern Mediterranean is therefore the only rational response to Europe’s long-term energy needs. The blue print for a network of solar power stations in the Sahara linked the Mediterranean shores and Northern Europe exists (DESERTIC Concept). The EU needs to turn what presently is no more than a technical concept into a long-term strategy which will have to fully involve its southern partners.
There is no time to be lost. Until 2050 the EU – and all other industrialised countries – will have to reduce their C02 emissions by 80 percent to prevent climate change from turning into catastrophe. This implies reducing the consumption of oil, gas and coal by roughly the same percentage.
It is time to think seriously on how to replace fossil energy within such a short time-span.
Brussels, 21.05.09 Eberhard RheinAuthor : Eberhard Rhein