The installation of new solar power has been increasing around the world every year. Some 15 countries, led by Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Czech Republic, have been doing very well in terms of the most important measure, solar capacity per capita. Unfortunately, however, none of the five countries most responsible for CO2 emissions – the USA, China, India, Russia, and Japan – are in the top 15. That’s the bad news. However, four of these countries – all except Russia – have been adding solar power rapidly.
The growth of China’s deployment of solar energy, actual and planned, in the past decade has been phenomenal. By 2003, China’s installed solar capacity was only 42 MW (0.042 GW), but by 2011, China had installed 7 GW and was planning to add 5 more GW by 2015. Then, having added more than that amount in 2012 alone, China increased its 2015 goal to 15 GW, then raised it again to 40 GW by 2015 and 50 GW by 2020. In seeking to meet this goal, China in 2013 set a world record for solar installations, adding an amazing 12 GW (which is the total amount of the U.S. installed solar power since the beginning).
China will hence probably soon surpass all other countries combined in the total amount of solar power installed – although its population is so huge that the percentage of its electricity generated from solar is still very small.
A government that wants to promote a type of clean energy provides a “feed-in tariff,” which covers the difference between the present market price of electricity and what it would cost generating electricity with that form of clean energy. In 2012, Japan provided an especially generous feed-in tariff for solar energy, helping the country increase its solar installation greatly. As a result, during 2013 Japan invested more in solar energy installation than any other country. Whereas China and Japan by 2010 had contributed only 10 percent of the deployment of global solar power, by the end of 2013 they accounted for 45 percent. India, after getting off to a slow start, authorized a National Solar Mission in 2010 and by 2013 it had added 1 gigawatt of solar power, then announced that it plans to install 10 GW by 2017 and 20 GW by 2020.
As for the United States, it has made great strides this century. From 52 megawatts installed in 2002, it rose to 7,200 megawatts by 2012 and then in 2013 became one of only four countries to have installed 10 GW. However, given America’s wealth and technology, this figure is not especially impressive, compared with the other three countries, especially relatively small Italy and Germany, which have installed much more.
But the important thing is what the USA does now. “America’s solar energy potential,” noted a 2013 report by Environment America, “is virtually endless.” Why? Because “America has enough solar energy potential to power the nation several times over.” In addition, “every one of the 50 states has the technical potential to generate more electricity from the sun than it uses in the average year.” In 19 states, “the technical potential for electricity generation from solar photovoltaics exceeds annual electricity consumption by a factor of 100 or more.” Moreover, 85% of the solar electricity generated thus far has occurred in only 12 states, dubbed the “dazzling dozen” (and even they have only begun to realize their potential – California, which does the best, has so far fulfilled only 6 percent of it).
By one measurement, the United States has been doing well, increasing its solar power almost 420 percent between 2010 and 2013. But by another measurement, it has hardly begun, accounting for slightly over 1 percent of America’s electricity.
The Promise of Concentrated Solar Power
Solar photovoltaics provide only one of the types of solar energy. There is also concentrated (also called “concentrating”) solar power, which one physicist has called the “technology that will save humanity.” In this technology – abbreviated CSP – mirrors create concentrated solar power by aiming sunlight at seawater so as to turn it into steam, which then drives turbines to create electricity.
In 2011, for example, a CSP plant in Spain showed that it was able to produce electricity for 24 hours straight. Also, CSP can generate three times more power per acre than solar plants using PV technology, and CSP technology does not require any scarce and hence expensive materials: “CSP plants are made from low-cost and durable materials such as steel and glass.”
Perhaps the greatest advantage of CSP plants is their ability to provide “dispatchable energy,” meaning “power that can be turned on or off on demand.” Accordingly, they can be turned on when the demand for electricity is the greatest. “Current CSP plants can store thermal energy for up to 16 hours, which means that their production profile can match the demand profile (just like a conventional power plant).”
CSP is mainly used in large (utility-scale) solar energy generating systems (SEGS). The largest one in the world is the Ivanpah plant in California’s Mojave Desert. Consisting of nine solar plants, it produces 354 megawatts. (A megawatt, abbreviated MW, is 1,000 kilowatts, or a million watts.) Having been around since the 1980s, CSP was dormant for 30 years but is now experiencing a resurgence, which began in Spain. For several years, Spain was the CSP leader, but because of a political change in Spain, combined with the building of enormous CSP facilities in Arizona and Southern California, leadership has shifted to the U.S.
There are also large CSP plants in operation, or in development, in other parts of the world, such as one in India’s Gujarat Solar Park and a huge facility in oil-rich Abu Dhabi. By 2013, CSP plants were producing a total of 2.5 gigawatts (GW) worldwide (a gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts, hence a billion watts), and many additional plants were in the pipeline. Greenpeace has predicted that CSP could meet 7 percent of the world’s projected power needs by 2030, rising to 25 percent by 2050.
Note: This excerpt has been published from Prof. David Griffin’s book Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis which is available at this link.
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