Solar PV has come a long way as a power generation technology. As highlighted in SolarPower Europe’s Global Market Outlook for 2018 to 2022, solar added 98 GW of net generation capacity last year, eclipsing all other forms of electricity generation. But solar needs to do a lot more, and to do it very soon if we want to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and keep global warming to below 1.5°C from pre-industrial levels.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered its assessment in October of the climate goals agreed at the COP21 conference in Paris about three years ago. The Paris agreement calls for holding global warming below 2°C, while “pursuing efforts” to limit it to the above-mentioned 1.5°C. But as the IPCC makes clear in its recent assessment, even 1.5 degrees is likely to be disastrous. Likely effects include the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs, the displacement of millions of people by rising sea levels, and a decline in global crop yields.
IEA’s World Energy Outlook
Shortly after the IPCC findings, the International Energy Agency (IEA) delivered its annual World Energy Outlook (WEO), which also paints a bleak picture on the global emissions front. Rather than forecasting a decline in CO2 and GHG emissions, the IEA anticipates these to rise in coming years. While these emissions flat-lined in the years 2014 to 2016, they rose 1.7% last year and are likely to continue “on a slow upward trend to 2040,” a trajectory “far out of step with what scientific knowledge says will be required to tackle climate change.”
Instead the IEA report envisages a future where coal, oil, and gas continue to play leading roles in all of the 20+ year scenarios it describes. The report covers four main scenarios:
We must do a lot better to slash emissions to keep climate change and the IPCC’s apocalyptic predictions to a minimum. If we give PV 26% in 2040 and coal 3,839 TWh (the NPS figure given to PV in 2040), that’s a path to a future we wish for our children and generations after them
At pv magazine, we know the IEA does not have the best track record in predicting the rise of solar PV. As described in more detail in our January issue (pv magazine 01/2018, p. 40) previous editions of IEA’s WEO have underestimated by a wide margin the success of solar energy. So there’s hope that solar will continue to surprise even experienced energy analysts and eclipse fossil fuels much earlier than the IEA anticipates. And to be fair to the IEA, their SDS scenario does put solar PV at 6,409 TWh with a 17% market share in 2040, outpacing coal by a wide margin (1,982 TWh or 5% market share).
Asia critical for emissions
Asia is the main conundrum when it comes to weaning the world away from coal and fossil fuels. In an October 31, 2018 article entitled “New Asian coal plants knock climate goals off course,” the Financial Times quotes the IEA’s Birol to highlight the critical role these new power stations play: “… the new plants would ‘lock in the emissions trajectory of the world, full stop.” Furthermore, “How we are going to deal with this problem is for me the nerve centre of the climate change debate today.”
All in all, Asia has 2,000 GW of coal capacity with an average age of only 11 years, much younger than the 42 years of coal plants in the U.S. and Europe. Looking at Asia’s two biggest countries, at least in terms of population, reveals the challenge: Despite its record PV buildout in 2017, China also ramped up its coal-fired power generation by 4%. India also did very well on the PV scorecard in 2017, but its coal-fired generation went up by 13%.
Balancing clean energy and climate goals with economic development is a difficult challenge and for most politicians, at least to date, the latter usually prevails to secure the needed support in the population. Then there is the issue of societal development and how to deal with rather entrenched beliefs about how societal progress is manifested. For example, that car ownership is a sign of progress. If that is what most people believe and value, then India’s vehicle ramp-up to over 230 million vehicles today (three times the number in 2001) is only the beginning.
U.S. and Europe also crucial
While Asia is the key piece of the puzzle in coming to grips with GHG emissions, the United States and Europe could do much more. The Trump Administration failed miserably in walking away from the COP21 accord and when the IPCC announced its findings in October, Trump’s response revealed a complete lack of urgency and further procrastination: “I want to look at who drew it – you know, which group drew it.” In Europe, the poster child of the shift away from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewables (which even gave rise to the new term “Energiewende” in both German and English) is in fact a major coal producer. In 2016 Germany ranked number one globally in the production of lignite coal with 171.5 million metric tons.
Bold action required and doable
What Germany should do is embrace its leadership in renewables to exceed both its renewable energy targets and its GHG emissions targets. The technology is in place and most Germans are deeply concerned by GHG emissions and the rapid pace of climate change. Over in the United States California is leading the way with its 100% renewables mandate and legislation requiring new housing in the state to have rooftop PV. This is the kind of bold action needed to alter the course of GHG emissions and global warming. In Europe (and other countries) comprehensive carbon pricing would accelerate the shift to cleaner production, be it clean energy generation or cleaner industrial production.
The upcoming UN Climate Change conference in Katowice, Poland, will bring together government representatives and we can only hope that they will heed the IPCC’s warnings and take bold actions to cut global emissions. If these actions are taken, a bright future beckons for our industry, since solar PV can become the leading solution to global warming on the energy front. The foundation has been built. Now it is up to the world’s governments to use this toolbox to save the planet as we know it.