Energy from the sun

Thomas Edison’s assertion that “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” is particularly pertinent to the solar energy sector. This remarkable technology could hold answers to so many of the world’s energy challenges, but only at the cost of hard effort and investment. Solar Energy Perspectives, the first in-depth study dedicated to solar technology from the International Energy Agency (IEA), a sister organisation of the OECD, gives a comprehensive analysis of solar energy’s potential as well as the policies required to increase its capacity in the coming decades. 

Solar energy currently generates a tiny fraction of the world’s energy mix, paling even in comparison to established renewables such as biomass and hydro power, but the IEA predicts that up to 25% of global electricity could be produced by solar photovoltaic electricity (PV) and solar thermal electricity (STE) by 2050.

The investment required to get there is substantial, so government support is required if prices are to compete with conventional energy sources. Furthermore, as with most renewables, energy storage and transport are significant costs which must be taken on board. These initial restraints, according to the report, will decrease in importance as technology improves and infrastructure develops, provided there is sufficient policy support. There is no room for complacency, however, as solar energy will require decades of investment and careful planning before it can become a major energy supplier. Governments must make bold policy decisions and stick by them, something which has not always been done in the past. False starts and setbacks, for instance the shelving of solar projects due to higher than expected costs, have so far hindered the potential of solar energy, according to the IEA.

It is estimated that 7 billion people will live in sunny regions with dry climates by 2050, compared to 2 billion in colder, temperate areas. Solar energy is ideal to meet their needs, despite its relative slow uptake in the sector to date, in comparison with current world leaders Germany and Japan. The report suggests that technology and expertise should be shared on a multilateral basis, to encourage sunnier places to increase their capacity.

International Energy Agency (2011), Solar Energy Perspectives, OECD Publishing.

©OECD Observer No 287 Q4 2011

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