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Is exponential growth of solar PV the obvious conclusion?

Brent Wanner

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Solar PV has experienced exponential growth in recent years, with global installed capacity increasing ten-fold from 2010 to 2017 – annual capacity additions rose from less than 20 GW in 2010 to 40 GW in 2014 and a record-breaking 97 GW in 2017. At the same time, wind power has continued to expand, adding about 50 GW annually over the past five years.

Together, solar PV and wind have the potential to transform electricity worldwide, with significant impacts on the operations of whole systems and the economics of all sources of electricity. But to what degree can we reasonably expect such exponential growth to continue?

China is the engine of solar PV growth

China has been the driving force behind the exponential growth of solar PV, accounting for 75% of global growth in solar PV deployment over the five years leading up to 2017 (though official data indicates that additions declined in China in 2018).

China’s success in this sector has been thanks to a virtuous cycle of strong policy support and falling technology costs. For example, China’s 2020 targets for solar PV have been ratcheted up several times, rising from an initial target of 1.8 GW set in 2008, to 105 GW in the 13th Five-Year Plan set at the end of 2016. Recent discussions are looking to 210 GW or beyond.

Support policies have also played a determining role in other world leaders of solar PV. In the United States, the extension of tax credits in late 2016 gave a significant boost to both solar PV and wind power markets, complementing state-level renewable energy goals that continue to evolve. In the European Union, the renewables target of 27% for 2030 set in 2016 was recently revised up to 32%. In India, implementation measures have been expanding, including in 2016 doubling the amount of land set aside for solar PV deployment.

What would exponential growth mean for annual solar PV deployment?

Driven in part by these strong policies, the solar PV market has grown dramatically, at a rate of 27% annually over the past five years. However continuing at this pace would mean a doubling of annual deployment every three years, passing 200 GW in 2020 and exceeding 2 100 GW in 2030. This would represent a massive scaling up that would go beyond any level of construction seen in the past, at more than 6-times the capacity of all technologies built in 2015. It would also require mobilising a dramatic level of investment.

For now, policy has been the key driver in accelerating deployment, but maintaining this growth rate would far outpace established policy goals. For example, combining the policy ambitions of the US, EU, Japan, China and India would require only about 70 GW of solar PV per year. Even in the case where actions to mitigate climate change and reduce air pollution accelerate, as defined in the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), solar PV deployment in these leading regions would rise to about 120 GW per year to 2030, a level well below what is implied by continued exponential growth.

Falling costs will accelerate deployment, right?

In addition to support policies, solar PV growth has been driven by impressive cost reductions, falling by about two-thirds over the past five years with all indications pointing to further reductions in the future. New utility-scale solar PV projects completed in 2017 had average levelised costs of electricity (LCOE) of just over $100 per megawatt-hour (MWh), based on standard financing over 20 years. Best-in-class projects with preferential financing can costs as much as 60% less today and recent auction bids indicate that next wave of leading projects could cost $30 per MWh or less.

However, low costs do not guarantee accelerated deployment, as they are only part the story. In this light, to better assess the relative competitiveness of technologies WEO2018 included a new metric of competitiveness that has been developed over several years, called value-adjusted LCOE (or VALCOE).

VALCOE builds on the foundation of LCOE that incorporates all cost elements, but also adds three categories of value in power systems: energy, flexibility and capacity. Combining these elements provides a stronger basis for comparisons between variable renewables like solar PV and dispatchable.

From this perspective, hourly simulations of electricity demand, supply and electricity prices in China, India, the United States and European Union all point to a more complex picture for the competitiveness for several technologies, including solar PV.

In India for example, the LCOE of new solar PV is projected to drop below that of coal-fired power plants by 2025. But the story is different using VALCOE. As the share of solar PV surpasses 10% in 2030, the value of daytime production drops and the value of flexibility increases. After 2030, even with further cost reductions, solar PV becomes less competitive.

Ultimately, the ability of market forces to drive exponential growth will depend on the profitability of solar PV without government intervention. This calls for a healthy return on investment in the face of market risk, a challenging prospect for solar PV or any power generation technology today, as current market designs rarely monetise all the services provided. Exponential growth also calls for solar PV to outcompete not only alternatives for new investment but also the existing power plants based on costs and value.

For example, recent deployment of onshore wind highlights that falling costs alone may not lead to ever-increasing deployment. In 2017, the LCOE of onshore wind power continued to decline to about $75 per MWh globally, some 30% lower than utility-scale solar PV. However, global capacity additions fell for the second year in a row to 44 GW in 2017, well below the record of 65 GW set in 2015.

The future of solar PV, like so many parts of the energy system, will continue to depend largely on decisions made by governments. With pressing global and local environmental concerns, governments should look to ratchet up ambitions related to all low carbon options, including solar PV and wind power, but also nuclear, carbon capture utilisation and storage, hydro, bioenergy and renewables for heat and transport. Without this boost, the annual market for solar PV may stagnate or decline, an unfortunate fate that has happened to many other promising technologies.

IEA

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Energy

Solar powering sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

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The way energy is produced, distributed and used causes environmental damage – most visibly air pollution – that in turn harms people’s health. It is also one of the major drivers of climate change. Recognising this, countries are urgently looking to shift to more sustainable energy, but the transition has so far been slow. Put simply, our future depends on our ability to decarbonize our economies by the end of the century. This was recognised by the Paris climate agreement in 2015 and is central to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) sets countries the twin challenge of meeting new benchmarks in renewable energy and energy efficiency, while ensuring universal access to modern energy.

In Asia and the Pacific, progress towards SDG 7 needs to be accelerated. While 99 percent of the population is expected to have access to electricity by 2030, access to clean cooking fuels will reach only 70 percent of our region’s population, leaving far too many people exposed to the deadly impacts of indoor air pollution. Energy intensity – a measure of our economies’ energy efficiency – is set to decrease but will fall short of 2030 Agenda targets if no further action is taken. At the same time, the share of renewable energy in total energy consumption is only expected to reach 14 percent, well under the 22 percent share required.
Solar energy has a major part to play in closing these gaps. It is an opportunity we must seize for low carbon development, energy security and poverty alleviation. Because solar power can bring clean, emissions-free and evenly distributed energy. This is particularly relevant to Asia and the Pacific, where developing countries have abundant solar energy resources. Solar energy technology increasingly offers a cost-effective alternative to extending networks to outlying and often challenging geographical locations. A potential which has been captured by the Indian leadership’s ambition for “one world, one sun, one grid”.

Governments, the private sector and investors are now thinking over the horizon, planning for a more sustainable and low carbon future. The cost of renewable technologies, very much including solar power has dropped rapidly, bringing these solutions within reach. India now has the newest and cheapest solar technology of anywhere in the world. Mini-grids or standalone solar home systems can be deployed quickly and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Due in part to unsustainable subsidies and in part to inertia, coal fired electricity is set to continue to grow in the short to medium term, but wind and solar must play a much more substantial role sooner rather than later for us to have a chance of meeting the SDGs or achieving the aspirations of the Paris Agreement.

India is supporting this solar revolution. By founding and hosting the International Solar Alliance, it has moved decisively to increasing access to solar finance, lowering the cost of technology and building the solar skills needed among engineers, planners and administrators. But it has also set an unparalleled deployment target for solar power generation. The National Solar Mission aims to reach 100 GW of solar power generation by 2022 and has spurred intense activity in solar development across India which has captured the imagination of the region.

At the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the development arm of the United Nations in the region, we are clear solar energy can boost renewables’ share in our power mix, increase energy efficiency and bring electricity to remote parts of the region. Our research is focused on overcoming the challenges of achieving these three elements of SDG7. Upon request, we support countries maximize the potential to adopt sustainable energy through technical support and capacity building, including through the development of energy transition roadmaps. Work is also underway to develop a develop a regional masterplan on sustainable energy connectivity, vital to make the most of solar power by supporting the growth of cross border power systems.

A core purpose of sustainable development is to ensure we leave future generations a world which affords them the same opportunities we have enjoyed. This is within our grasp if we work across borders to promote solar energy throughout Asia and the Pacific. India has a major role to play. Its experience gives us a historical opportunity to shape best practices in solar energy for our region and reduce carbon emissions. This is experience we cannot afford to waste.

UN ESCAP

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Energy

Phasing Out Coal and Other Transitions: Lessons From Europe

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Climate change reports are seldom sanguine.  Carbon dioxide, the principal culprit, is at record levels, about twice the preindustrial value and a third higher than even 1950.  Without abatement it could rise to  a thousand parts per million in a self-reinforcing loop spiraling into an irredeemable ecological disaster.  The UN IPCC report warns of a 12-year window for action.

Contrasting President Trump’s boast of US energy independence based on coal and other fossil fuels in his SOTU address on Tuesday, two Democrats, Senator Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, have introduced a 10-page Green New Deal resolution to achieve carbon neutrality within ten years.  While this target may not be technically feasible, it is an admirable start to the discussion.  At the same time, the Germans are attacking the problem forcefully as demonstrated by their new coal commission report issued last week.

In November 2016, the German Federal Government adopted its Climate Action Plan 2050.  It outlined CO2 reduction targets in energy, industry, buildings, transport and agriculture.  Energy is the most polluting; its emissions total the sum of all the others except industry and energiewende (energy change) was a key aspect of the plan.

So even as our atavistic president is promoting coal, Germany, the EU economic powerhouse, announced it is planning to phase out all coal-fired power stations by 2038.  As outlined in the November 2016 plan, a commission comprising delegates from industry, trade unions, civil society including environmental NGOs and policy makers was appointed in 2018 to examine the issue and prescribe an equitable solution.  After eight months of negotiations and discussions, concluding with a final 21-hour marathon session, it has produced a dense 336-page document.  Only one member out of 28 cast an opposing vote, and Greenpeace added a dissenting option as it wants the process to begin immediately.

Such an objective was a special challenge because of Germany’s long industrial history coupled with coal mining.   The plan shuts down the last coal-burning power station by 2038 as the final step in the pathway outlined — an ambitious alternative is to exit by 2035 if conditions permit.  Total capacity of coal-using stations in Germany is about 45 gigawatts, and the report sets out a four-year initial goal of 12.5 gigawatts to be switched-off i.e. about two dozen of the larger 500+ megawatt units by 2022.  Progressively, eight years later (by 2030) another 24 gigawatts will have been phased out leaving just 9 gigawatts to be eliminated by 2035 if possible but definitely by 2038 at the latest.

It is a demanding plan for coal has been deeply embedded with German industry.  To ease the pain for tens of thousands of workers and their families, the plan allocates federal funding to deal with its broad ramifications i.e. job loss and displacement.  An adjustment fund will be used for those aged 58 and over to compensate pension deficits.  Funds are also directed towards retraining for younger workers and for education programs designed to broaden skills.

It includes 40 billion euros to develop alternative industry in coal mining states plus money not directly project-related.  In addition further investments in infrastructure and a special funding program for transport adding up to 1.5 billion euros per year are allocated in the federal budget until 2021.

The change-over will raise electricity prices, so a 2 billion euro per year compensation program for users, both private individuals and industrial, will continue until 2030.  This is designed to relieve the burden on families, and to maintain industrial competitiveness.

Germany is not alone.  The EU has issued an analysis of accelerated coal phase-out by 2030.  The Netherlands has its own energiesprong (energy leap) focused on energy transition and energy neutral buildings, meaning that the buildings generate enough energy through solar panels or other means to pay for the energy deficit from their construction and use.   It can now clad entire apartment blocks in insulation and solar panels, and is reputed to be so efficient that some buildings are producing more renewable energy than consumed. This expertise is also being utilized in the UK.

Given the forests, the Norwegians have tried something different.  They have built the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper, the Mjøs Tower, 85 meters high in Brumunddal.  Its wood sourced from forests within a 50 km radius uses one-sixth the energy of steel and of course much less, if at all, emission of greenhouse gases.

By the end of Germany’s enormous sector-wide endeavor, it expects to reduce CO2 emissions to roughly half through 2030 and 80-95 percent by 2050.  The comprehensive and complete nature of the program

could serve as a blueprint here in the US.  Thus the obvious question:  If Germany with a far larger proportion of its workforce associated with coal can do it, why can’t the US?

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Energy

The mysterious case of disappearing electricity demand

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Authors: Stéphanie Bouckaert and Timothy Goodson*

Electricity is at the heart of modern life, and so it’s easy to assume that our reliance on electricity will increase or even accelerate. However, in many advanced economies the data reveals a surprisingly different story.

Electricity demand has increased by around 70% since 2000, and in 2017, global electricity demand increased by a further 3%. This increase was more than any other major fuel, pushing total demand to 22 200 terawatt-hours (TWh). Electricity now accounts for 19% of total final consumption, compared to just over 15% in 2000.

Yet while global demand growth has been strong, there are major disparities across regions. In particular, in recent years electricity demand in advanced economies has begun to flatten or in some cases decline – in fact electricity demand fell in 18 out of 30 IEA member countries over the period 2010-2017. Several factors can account for this slowing of growth, but the key reason is energy efficiency.

There have been a range of new sources of electricity demand growth in advanced economies, including digitalization and the electrification of heat and mobility. However savings from energy efficiency have outpaced this growth. Energy efficiency measures adopted since 2000 saved almost 1 800 TWh in 2017, or around 20% of overall current electricity use.

Over 40% of the slowdown in electricity demand was attributable to energy efficiency in industry, largely a result of strict, broadly applied, minimum energy performance standards for electric motors. In residential buildings, total energy use by certain classes of appliances has already peaked. For example, energy use for refrigerators (98% of which are covered by performance standards) is well below the high point reached in 2009, and energy use for lighting has also declined. In the absence of energy efficiency improvements, electricity demand in advanced economies would have grown at 1.6% per year since 2010, instead of 0.3%.

Changes in economic structure in advanced economies have also contributed to lower demand growth. In 2000, around 53% of electricity demand in the industrial sector came from heavy industry, but by 2017 this figure had fallen to less than 45%.  Advanced economies now account for 30% of global steel production, for example, down from 60% in 2000, and for 25% of aluminium production, also down from around 60% in 2000.

Finally, electricity demand for heat and mobility increased by only 350 TWh between 2000 and 2017. Today, electric cars represent only 1.2% of all passenger vehicle sales in advanced economies and account for less than 0.5% of the passenger vehicle stock. Since 2000, only around 7% of households in advanced economies have switched from fossil fuels (mainly gas) to electricity for space and water heating purposes, and use of electricity for meeting heat demand in the industrial sector remains marginal. In many regions, the price of electricity relative to fossil fuels limits its competitiveness for heating end-uses.

When we look to the future, the pace of electrification is set to pick-up somewhat in advanced economies. Nonetheless, electricity demand growth is projected to remain sluggish in the IEA’s New Policies Scenario (NPS), as improvements in energy efficiency continue to act as a brake on increasing demand for many end-uses. In addition, fewer purchases of household appliances (most households in advanced economies today own at least one of each major household appliance such as refrigerators, washing machines and televisions), and a shift from industry to the less electricity-intensive services sector, all contribute to lower electricity demand growth.

On average, electricity demand in advanced economies is projected to grow at just 0.7% per year to 2040 in the NPS, with the increase largely due to digitalization and policies that incentivise the use of electric vehicles and electric heating. Without those policies, electricity demand would continue to flatten or even decline in many advanced economies.

There are other factors at play. For example, population growth in many advanced economies is barely exceeded by electricity demand growth, meaning that further growth in GDP per capita does not lead to an increase in electricity demand per capita (as an exception, the industry sector in Korea accounts for a large share of electricity demand, and so it is one of the few advanced economies that sees industry contribute to overall electricity demand growth on a per capita basis).

Ultimately, despite moderate growth in electricity demand, fuel-switching to electricity and energy efficiency improvements in the use of other fuels mean the share of electricity in final consumption is projected to increase to 27% in advanced economies by 2040, up from 22% today.

*Timothy Goodson, WEO Energy Analyst

IEA

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