A Bright Future for Solar Power – Renewable Energy – MOTHER EARTH NEWS

A Bright Future for Solar Power

Solar power installations picked up speed in 2009, and the trend is projected to continue thanks to falling prices and increased emphasis on renewable energy development.

By J. Matthew Roney, Earth Policy Institute
February/March 2011


solar panels

If we harnessed a mere 2.5 percent of the annual solar radiation striking southwestern land suitable for solar power plants, we could produce as much energy as the whole country currently uses.
PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

Solar photovoltaic (PV) cell manufacturers worldwide produced a record 10,700 megawatts of capacity in 2009 — an impressive 51 percent increase from the year before. By the end of 2009, nearly 23,000 megawatts had been installed worldwide, enough to power 4.6 million U.S. homes.

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China manufactured 3,800 megawatts of solar photovoltaics in 2009, leading all countries for the second straight year. Rounding out the top five producers were Japan in second place, Taiwan in third, Germany in fourth and the United States in fifth.

While China now manufactures more than a third of the world’s photovoltaic cells, most Chinese consumers cannot yet afford the technology. Ninety-five percent of China’s production is exported, mainly to Germany, which installed a record 3,800 megawatts of PV in 2009, more than half the total amount installed worldwide. Italy was first runner-up in newly installed photovoltaics, followed by Japan, then the United States.

Over the past decade, installed PV capacity has grown 16-fold worldwide, in large part due to government incentives encouraging the use of solar power. Although PV production and installation costs have fallen substantially over time, solar incentives will continue to be necessary until solar reaches grid parity (price competitiveness) with heavily subsidized fossil fuels.

The most important incentive to date for the solar industry is the feed-in tariff, which guarantees generators of renewable electricity — including homeowners, private firms and utilities — a long-term purchase price for each kilowatt-hour they produce. This powerful incentive to invest in renewables has now been adopted by approximately 50 countries.

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