Solar energy, in all its forms, accounts for less than 1% of the global energy mix. However, its rapid development should ensure it plays a vital role in the future energy landscape.
15%: The increase in renewable energy capacity from 2014 to 2015.
The status of solar energy can be assessed using various indicators:
- World energy production: According to the International Energy Agency (IEA)An independent, intergovernmental organization founded within the framework of the OECD..., world energy production totaled 13,800 million metric tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 20141. Despite a slight contraction, fossil fuels continued to be the dominant contributor, with an 81.2% share of production. Among other energy sources, energy from wood, waste and other biomassIn the energy sector, biomass is defined as all organic matter of plant or animal origin... maintained its share at 10%, primarily due to the widespread use of wood energy in the developing world. Nuclear accounted for 4.7% of global production, compared to 2.4% for hydro. Other renewable sources such as wind, solar thermal, photovoltaic (PV) solar and geothermalDescribes the technology used to tap subsurface heat to produce energy... experienced sharp growth in 2014 and 2015 but barely exceeded 1% of total energy production.
- World electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... generation: In 2015, hydro accounted for 16.6% of global electricity generation, followed by wind at 3.7%, biomass at 2%, photovoltaic solar at 1.2% and geothermal and concentrated 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... at 0.4%. All together, over 23% of global electricity was produced from renewables, a share that the IEA estimates could rise to 28% within the next five years.
- Breakdown of different solar technologies (see Close-Up: “The Two Types of Solar Energy, Photovoltaic and Thermal”): Low-temperature solar thermal, which directly uses heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... from the Sun’s rays in small, stand-alone installations, represents the largest share of solar energy. In 2015, solar thermal had a worldwide installed capacityThe power generation capacity of a particular plant. It is usually expressed in megawatts (or sometimes even gigawatts)... of 435 gigawatts (GW). China, which has invested heavily in solar collectors, is the biggest user of this source of heat, with close to two-thirds of global capacity, followed by the United States and Germany. Photovoltaic solar had an installed capacity of 227 GW, while that of concentrated solar power came to 4.8 GW2.
30,000 solar panels will be installed every hour around the world between now and 2021, according to the IEA.
Strong Growth Prospects
Renewable energies added a record 153 GW of new capacity in 2015, an increase of 15% from 2014 that the IEA has described as a “turning point” for renewables3. Solar accounted for 49 GW of the total and wind 66 GW.
The IEA predicts that growth will continue to 2021 as long as governments maintain their support for renewable energyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... development. Over the next five years, renewables are expected to account for 60% of the increase in world electricity generation. Wind and solar will drive 75% of the gain, mainly thanks to a decline in production costs of 25% for solar and 15% for wind (see Close-Up: “Photovoltaic Solar Is Increasingly Competitive”).
Using an image that captures the imagination, the IEA estimates that 2.5 wind turbines and 30,000 solar panels will be installed every hour between now and 2021.