From a very small base, and from a tiny position in world energy supply, the buildout of global solar power is starting to go parabolic. Last year, according to the just released BP Statistical Review (you must access the Excel workbook for solar data), global solar generation nearly doubled to reach 55.7 TWh (terrawatt hours). | see: Global Solar Consumption in TWh (terrawatt hours) 2001-2011.
To put this power capacity in context, North America generated almost 100 times as much power in 2011 from all sources (coal, natural gas, hydro, nuclear, wind, solar), to reach 5204.5 TWh. By that measure, solar power capacity on a global basis can barely be detected, and is therefore a kind of joke, right? Uhm no, that would be wrong.
As world nuclear power goes into retreat, because of its enormous expense, catastrophe-risk, and complexity, it is power generated by solar that offers easy time-to-completion benefits and project clarity, especially in the developing world. (Indeed, nuclear power again lost primary energy share last year, according to the BP Statistical Review). Moreover, as the world is no longer able to fund economic growth with oil, owing to flat global supply, the industrial economy continues to migrate towards the electrical grid. While this certainly means that coal fired power generation will dominate for the next decade, it’s also the case that a more robust powergrid will become the receptacle for solar power.
While I am not ready to sign on to a Singularity’s version of solar buildout, the possibility that solar power reaches 10% of global power generation by the end of this decade should give you some idea of the new world made possible by plummeting solar voltaic prices, and, the array of other technological advances in capturing the diffuse energy of the sun. To accomplish this gain in primary energy share, solar will need to advance from last year’s 55.7 TWh to approximately 2200 TWh. That probably sounds impossible to most observers, but I would point out that at current growth rates, those levels could be achieved as early as the year 2018.
It is not a mistake that global solar capacity has begun a parabolic move. While many will conclude that demand is the main driver of this growth—and that is not incorrect—it is actually the increasing difficulty and complexity of other power generation construction which is now casting off advantages, to solar power. Do not underestimate the speed of solar.