Solar energy could upend the global energy market and become a key energy source of the future.
Solar energy could upend the global energy market and become a key energy source of the future, a new paper in the journal Science suggests.
Having achieved 500 GW globally in solar power by the end of 2018, we can double that number by 2023, entering a era of “terawatt-scale solar” with exponential growth to follow, argues a team of experts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the California Institute of Technology, MIT and 24 other leading institutions.
Whereas just two years ago 10 TW solar by 2030 sounded like a dream, it’s now a goal we can confidently target and even move beyond, the team suggests. The authors predict up to 70 TW solar capacity globally by 2050, which would make it a powerful force in a worldwide transition towards renewables.
Supporting such a large-scale transition to solar power will require action across multiple areas, however.
First of all, it’s about the quick spread of key technologies such as virtual oscillation controllers, energy storage capacity and smart grids to improve energy system integration and increase the attractiveness of solar energy among stakeholders. Solar energy will also have to improve its reliability and ensure 24/7 failure-proof provision with effective management of supply and demand.
The good news is that technological developments in solar and energy storage are coming fast, while prices have been dropping to record lows. With the development of new and more cost-effective energy storage options, the trend is likely to continue.
The electrification of various sectors will be another arena for action, with transport, heating/cooling and industry to lead the race. Previous research suggests that 70% electrification of passenger transport by 2050 is entirely possible. Introducing renewables into steel production and other heavy industries can also greatly contribute to emission reductions.
A relatively new area to explore is storing solar electricity by electrolysis in chemical fuels, which allows for longer and cheaper storage. This would allow solar to reach beyond industries that rely on electricity and tap into biofuels upgrading, fertilizer production, metals refining, and synthetic fuel generation.
Finally, we will need to keep the innovation curve as high as ever, with particular attention paid to addressing resource shortages, increasing PV lifespans and ensuring an effective circular economy for all equipment and materials involved.
The authors are sure that if all necessary conditions come into play, we can confidently look to a future powered by clean and renewable energy.