Led by China and Japan in Asia, the United States in North America and Germany in Europe, photovoltaic (PV) solar power is poised for robust global growth. Some forecasts estimate it will meet nearly a third of the world’s power demand in 50 years’ time.
Two unrelated events have given photovoltaic solar powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... a tremendous boost. First, Germany’s nuclear phase-out after the March 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan turned it into the world’s leading solar country in short order. Second, in Beijing, the central government’s decision to make solar a vital part of its energy future, ahead of coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... , has prompted China to heavily subsidize its new industry and allowed it to dominate global supply.
Solar’s sudden upswing came amid serious growing pains. Surplus global capacity in panels forced the closure of many German as well as Chinese manufacturing plants. But the situation has stabilized: panel producers restructured and the downstream sector (PV system installation) scaled up and streamlined its operations. In 2016, China, Taiwan and other countries in Asia were responsible for manufacturing more than 80% of the world’s supply of PV panels.
7th: France’s world ranking for photovoltaic solar power at the end of 2015.
Three Leading Players: China, Germany and Japan
According to Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute1, total installed capacityThe power generation capacity of a particular plant. It is usually expressed in megawatts (or sometimes even gigawatts)... worldwide amounted to 242 gigawatts (GW) at the end of a record year in 2015. Capacity had reached 134 GW in 2013 and 178 GW in 2014, confirming the steady growth in photovoltaic installations, which equaled an average 42% per year between 2000 and 2015.
At the end of 2015, Europe remained the best-equipped region, with installed photovoltaic solar capacity accounting for 40% of the worldwide total. Germany, with a contribution of 16%, had been surpassed by China, at 21%. Japan was in third place with a 14% share, just ahead of North America (13%), followed by Italy, the United Kingdom and France in seventh position, with Spain and India close behind.
Growth in Europe has slowed; in 2014 it accounted for 48% of capacity. On the other hand, China’s share rose from 17% in 2014 to 21% in 2015. Japan and India have set very ambitious targets that should help them to make swift progress up the ranking over the coming years.
Outlook for 2020
According to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA)2, by 2020 global solar installed capacity could reach between 396 GW and 540 GW, equivalent to approximately 2.2% of global power generation. Also by 2020, China is expected to have built up a significant lead in solar power, with installed capacity of some 100 GW, ahead of Germany, Japan and the United States, each contributing between 50 GW and 60 GW. France is forecast to be the ninth or tenth biggest solar player in the world at that time.
Estimates beyond the next 20 years are always uncertain. Some expect capacity to reach 2,000 GW by 2035 and 12,000 GW in 50 years’ time, in around 2060-2075. With such capacity, the share of photovoltaic solar power in global electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... production would jump from 8% to 30%.
China has surpassed Germany in terms of its installed photovoltaic solar capacity.
PV Upstream and Down
Large global companies are spearheading the sector’s overall growth. On the upstream or panel production end, the top three players based on revenue are the American companies First Solar Inc. and SunPower (Total holds a majority interest in the latter) and China’s Yingli. They are followed by five more Chinese manufacturers, attesting to the country’s tremendous involvement in solar power.
The downstream sector, which is attracting investment from the same companies, is the one that will probably grow the most. It needs to incorporate solar into new practices and, in particular, succeed in driving the convergence of digital technologies and power. Downstream solar is very open to innovation and to the management of complex systems, embedded in each country’s regional fabric. It involves new occupations and will likely create the biggest pool of jobs in the future.