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Solar power on the road to success worldwide

Power generation with photovoltaics is growing rapidly worldwide. According to the Global Market Outlook, the outlook for photovoltaics that has now been published by the umbrella association of the European solar industry (SolarPower Europe), even faster than expected.

Accordingly, solar systems with a total capacity of 77 gigawatts (GW) were installed last year. In the previous year (2015) the global expansion was 50 GW and a decade earlier it was only one GW. One gigawatt of power corresponds to the generation capacity of a new nuclear power plant or two coal-fired power plants.

The authors of the report assume that the installation of solar systems will continue to increase. This year (2017) they expect a worldwide expansion of around 81 GW and in five years around 118 GW (average forecasts). However, if the development goes very well, the addition of photovoltaic systems could be much higher in 2021 and already amount to 162 GW.

At the end of 2016, around two percent of the world's electricity was being generated using solar power. The report predicts that global solar power generation would likely have doubled by the end of 2019. And if things are developing very well, there would be around three times more solar power worldwide by the end of 2021.

China as a role model?

For some years now, the boom has been driven primarily by China. In 2016, new solar systems with a capacity of 35 GW were built in China, which is around 45 percent of global installations. Last year, the USA (15 GW), Japan (9 GW) and India (5 GW) came in behind.

Germany, formerly a pioneer in solar energy, gave up its leading role four years ago and in 2016 only installed solar systems with a capacity of 1.5 GW. This puts Germany behind Great Britain (2 GW) in sixth place in the world.

In the other European countries, too, the amount of annual expansion fell significantly compared to previous years. While more than half of all solar systems worldwide were installed in the EU in 2012 (18 GW), in 2016 only just under seven GW were added.

"The Chinese government has consistently and continuously promoted the development of solar energy for large and small systems and has expanded solar power into a strategic industrial sector," says James Watson, Managing Director of SolarPower Europe. "China has really invested in these technologies, knowing that these are the future cornerstones of the power supply. In Europe and the USA, too, ten years ago there was this possibility of making this decision," Watson said in an interview with DW.

Solar power beats coal, atom and gas

Solar power was once very expensive and in 2010 still cost between 25 and 35 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). In countries with many hours of sunshine such as Chile and Saudi Arabia, large solar power plants are currently being built that generate electricity for two to three cents per kilowatt hour.

Even in Germany that is not sunny, solar power is now very cheap. "We have now submitted our offer for a large solar system and see the price in Germany at six cents per kilowatt hour," says CEO Udo Möhrstedt of IBC-Solar, which build solar power plants in Germany and other countries. "In India, the cost of generating electricity for our projects is now 4.6 euro cents."

According to the report, electricity from large solar power plants costs only half as much on average as new power plants with coal and nuclear power and is now also ahead of gas power plants. "Nowadays, large solar projects are generally cheaper than new gas, coal and nuclear power plants and solar power from the house roof is usually cheaper than electricity from the public grid," says Watson.

The conventional energy industry is now also seeing the benefits of solar power and is increasingly entering this new market. At the beginning of 2017, for example, the RWE subsidiary Innogy took over Belectric Solar & Battery GmbH, which builds large solar systems around the world. "We want to further develop the energy transition and open up new perspectives," says CEO Peter Terium as a reason for the purchase. "In the Gulf region, the focus is already on photovoltaic projects with a total capacity of 1000 megawatts. Projects of this size are of interest to Innogy."

What are the trends?

So far, solar expansion has mainly taken place in Europe, Asia and the USA. According to the experts from the Global Market Outlook, the expansion will continue. They assume that solar power generation in China and the USA will double or quadruple in the next five years and will increase by around 50 percent in Europe.

Many new countries are now increasingly investing in the technology that has become cheaper. India, which has installed 10 gigawatts of solar power so far, is driving solar expansion particularly strongly and thus wants to make the construction of new coal-fired power plants superfluous. According to the experts, the generation capacity will increase to around 76 GW by 2021 and, if the development is very good, even to 88 GW.

According to the forecasts in the report, the solar market will also develop very dynamically in many other countries. Countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, Sweden, Turkey and Pakistan, which have so far installed little photovoltaics (less than one gigawatt), are now entering the market and investing.

In addition to the price advantage, the Paris climate agreement gives solar power an additional tailwind. "Gigantic efforts are required to achieve the Paris target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees," stresses Watson, and he is confident that solar power has potential and answers. "The Paris climate conference showed a very high level of awareness among our governments around the world. It is the awareness that solar development brings abundant benefits."

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