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Despairing about climate change? These 4 charts on the unstoppable growth of solar may change your mind


Last year, the world built more new solar capacity than any other energy source combined.

Solar energy is now growing much faster than any other energy technology in history. How fast? Fast enough to completely displace fossil fuels from the entire global economy before 2050.

The rise and rise of low-cost solar power is our best hope of mitigating climate change quickly.

The total solar capacity exceeded 1 terawatt (1,000 gigawatt) for the first time last year. The sector is growing at about 20% per year. If this continues, we will reach 6 terawatts around 2031. In terms of capacity, that would be greater than the combined total of coal, gas, nuclear and hydropower.

As you can see, cheap solar energy is overtaking all other new-build energy sources. Global generation capacity additions (2018-2022)

Fewer and fewer new fossil power plants are now being built. As the rest of the global fleet ages, most will retire by the middle of the century.

Australia finds the path

You may be surprised to learn that Australia is a global renewable energy pioneer. Most solar panels use developed in Australia PERC technologyfor example.

All of the leading countries for solar and wind power generation per capita are in Europe, except Australia. In Australia, 99% of new generation capacity is now solar and wind because it is cheap.

solar energy per capita
Highest solar and wind production per capita in 2022.
Cinder, CC DOOR

But unlike European countries, Australia cannot share electricity across national borders.

Instead, we must cope with rapidly increasing levels of sun and wind by dividing it across state lines. This turns out to be relatively simple. Sun and wind have reached a point share of 31% of the national electricity market, while the grid remains stable.

Three states or territories already have very high renewables penetration rates. The ACT has built or purchased sufficient renewable energy sources coverage 100% of its use. Tasmania also has 100% renewable energy, thanks to hydropower and wind, and it is strive for doubling this to export to other states. And South Australia will soon become the world’s first gigawatt-scale grid to run on renewable energy sources. Currently it is sourcing about 70% of its energy from sun and wind.

This matters because of Australia’s location. Like 80% of the world’s population, we live in low to moderate latitudes where the sun shines abundantly, even in winter. That means the methods we pioneer or test can easily be adopted by almost anyone.

graph showing 20% ​​growth of solar energy until 2013
Global solar power generation capacity, assuming a continued 20% growth rate in annual deployment.

Where will the era of ubiquitous solar energy take us?

The solar capacity has increased by 20% per year for decades.

Eliminating fossil fuels from the global economy is simple: electrify everything using clean electricity from solar and wind. This includes:

  • electric vehicles are replacing conventional vehicles
  • electric heat pumps replace gas space and water heaters in homes and businesses
  • electric ovens are replacing gas burners in factories
  • electrolysis of water produces green hydrogen for the chemical industry, which can be used to produce ammonia, metals, plastics and synthetic jet fuel in a clean manner.

To power our homes, industries and vehicles, we will have to do that double electricity production. Why not anymore? Because electricity is usually much more efficient at producing an energy result. For example, 85% of the gasoline you put in your car is lost as heat.

In countries with a large chemical industry, electricity production may need to triple.

If these trends continue, we will find ourselves in a very different – ​​and better – energy world by the middle of the century.

Many developing countries – including population giants like Indonesia, India, China and Nigeria – could overtake Europe or Australia energy consumption per capita. Since electricity consumption is highly correlated with wealth, access to cheap electricity will be a great boon for many countries.

But is it possible?

In 2050, the earth will have about 10 billion people. To provide everyone with enough electricity to live a good life, we need about 200 billion megawatt hours per year (equivalent to 200,000 terawatt hours per year).

Let’s assume solar does the heavy lifting for decarbonization, completing two-thirds of the job and leaving the remaining one-third to wind, hydro and everything else put together. Is this possible?

Yes. If the solar energy growth rate of 20% per year is sustained, it is easily fast enough to reach 80 terawatts of installed capacity by 2050 – enough to supply 130,000 terawatt hours per year and (with help from wind) to completely prosper a world. to low-carbon.

That would bring global electricity consumption to 20 megawatt hours per person per year – double the current Australian consumption per person.

In addition to eliminating most greenhouse gas emissions, we will also remove car exhausts, chimneys, city smog, coal mines, ash dumps, oil spills, oil-related warfare, and gas fracking.

The main short-term bottlenecks are probably building enough transmission lines – and making sure we have enough technicians and installers.

electricity usage
Current electricity consumption per capita in 2022.
Our world in data, CC DOOR

We have the space and the resources

In the long term, there are practically no restrictions for large-scale deployment of solar energy.

The sun will shine for billions of years to come. Raw materials for solar panels are plentiful: silicon from sand and base metals such as steel. They contain no toxic metals or critical materials such as cobalt and are highly recyclable. Energy storage is now a solved problem.

Most countries have far more solar and wind resources than they need to be energy self-sufficient. This, in turn, will increase their resilience in the face of war, pandemics and the changing climate.

Densely populated areas without much free land like JapanEurope and the northeastern United States have huge offshore wind resources, while Indonesia and West Africa have huge offshore solar resources – imagine solar farms floating on calm tropical seas.

We have enough space. Eighty terawatts of solar energy translates to 8 kilowatts per person. This is the size of a typical Australian rooftop solar system, which is usually shared by a family rather than an individual.

The required area of ​​a solar panel is approximately five square meters per kilowatt (40 square meters total for 8 kilowatts). Some of the panels will be installed on the roofs of homes. Others will be ground-mounted solar trackers and used alongside agriculture. Some crops and grass such as the partial shade of panels. Other options include pushing through lakes and seas.

For our energy-intensive life in Australia, we might need 15 kilowatts of solar and wind energy per person, which will work reliably for 30 years and can then be taken apart and recycled.

In the 1950s, proponents of nuclear power spoke of a future where energy was too cheap to measure. That did not happen with nuclear power. But solar energy offers cheap, unlimited energy, available forever with minimal resource, environmental and social constraints.

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