Is there a solar revolution? Time for data, not adjectives

26 06 2015

Robert Wilson

Reblogged from Robert Wilson’s site, Carbon Counter

In reality solar power’s heavily subsidized growth is nowhere close to being the revolutionary force some of its advocates claim it already is. It is also not growing exponentially, as anyone could see if they checked the meaning of the term exponential growth and actual statistics for year on year growth rates.

Globally, solar grew by 93% in 2011, 60% in 2012, 39% in 2013, and 38% in 2014. Meanwhile, in the countries with the most developed solar sectors, absolute growth has in fact slowed.

Germany added 7.5 and 7.6 GW of new capacity in 2011 and 2012 respectively. In 2013 and 2014 the figures had gone down to 3.3 and 1.9 GW. The same goes for Italy, where new capacity additions went from 9.3 to 0.38 GW between 2011 and 2014.

In fact, the current growth of European solar is not even vaguely exponential. Instead, growth is declining overall. In 2011, 22.4 GW was added throughout Europe; in 2012 17.4 GW was added, in 2013 10.4 GW was added, and in 2014 7.2 GW was added. Absolute growth of solar capacity in Europe is now one third of what it what it was in 2011.

Anyone confidently predicting continued exponential growth of solar will have a hard time accounting for the actual decline in growth in Europe.

Growth of solar can be put in further perspective by comparing the annual growth (in TWh) with the total electricity consumption of a country. Let’s imagine that in a single year a country went from 0 to 1% of electricity generation being from solar panels. That would mean it would take roughly 100 years to get to 100% solar.

Obvious caveat: we don’t know what to do when the sun goes down, but you get the thrust.

So, how quickly is solar growing globally? Below is a chart showing the top 25 countries in terms of solar growth last year. Growth is measured by comparing absolute growth of solar (in TWh) with total electricity generation (in TWh).


Number 1 is Greece. Now, exactly why heavily indebted Greece is number one in the growth of a heavily subsidized source of energy generation can be debated, but the fact remains.

Most importantly, no major economy is above 1%. At current rates of solar additions they are all many many decades away from solar power taking over. And remember: many of these countries, e.g. Germany, are now seeing reduced rates of absolute solar additions.

Growth in solar energy in China now attracts a lot of optimistic headlines. However, the increase in solar energy last year represented only 0.2% of total electricity generation. In other words, if China kept increasing solar’s share at that rate it would take half a millennium to get to 100% solar electricity. Keep this in mind when you see misguided headlines about solar power having a major influence on Chinese air pollution.

Focusing on electricity generation alone of course is problematic. The underlying reason to switch to solar power is climate change. And the majority of fossil fuels are not used for generating electricity, but for heating, flying, shipping, making steel, and so on. What we really should look at is total energy consumption.

The growth of solar is much slower in terms of total primary energy consumption. Growth in solar in 2015 was less than 0.5% of total primary energy consumption in all major economies.

Top20growth_primThese numbers should make it clear how far we are away from a solar revolution. The figure for China and the US is 0.1%. If China and the US added solar at a rate ten times greater than they are today, then, it would take them a century to get to 100% solar.

In Germany, where a supposed solar revolution has occurred, the figure was 0.29%. 100% solar is a mere three centuries away in that high latitude, cloudy country……. where the sun still goes down.




3 responses

27 06 2015
Anthony William O'brien

Solar has it’s part to play. However there is so much more low hanging fruit in the energy efficiency department. So much cheaper to cut the waste, than to work out new ways of creating more and more power. Small well insulated houses use so much less power. But instead we badly, almost deliberately badly, design large inefficient houses overcoming bad design with massive amounts of air conditioning.

Our society is so very wasteful in pretty much everything we do

27 06 2015
Chris Harries

These sort of articles illicit a range of take home messages that suit each reader’s inclination: 1) there’s no hope then 2) just shows that we have to go nuclear 3) it’s not true, just anti-renewables propaganda 4) we’re at the pointy end of the renewables revolution, shows that governments have to get their fingers out and support it much more 5) far too much store is store is being placed on dilute energy sources, they can’t power industrial civilisation 6) the priority focus should be on energy conservation 7) a renewables future is possible but only if it is accompanied by truly radical cultural and economic change 8) we can’t predict the future but if we build as much renewables capacity as possible then we stand the best chance of surviving catastrophic social collapse 9) heavy investment in renewables borrows time until we can work out better solutions 10) statistics show that 2 percent of the solar energy delivered to the Sahara dessert can power the whole world.

It’s possible to argue for and against any of these, but my take home message is that people tend to believe what they want to believe and hunt around for any evidence to support that case. In the meantime the bulk of society lands on 4, because it offers the most hope and least stress to them, and that’s what our civilisation will do – at least until it proves to be a dead end.

29 06 2015

wonder what the growth rate is for wind and other alternatives?

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