Could Solar Energy Provide 25 Percent of Global Power?

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Photo: afloresm's Flickr photostream/Creative Commons

Watch it, coal: as a preferred energy source for human use in the next 40 years, the sun is on the rise.

A report from the International Energy Agency this week predicted that solar energy could provide 20 to 25 percent of global energy by as early as 2050, provided world leaders follow a pair of “roadmaps” for solar power creation.

Announced at the Mediterranean Solar Plan Conference in Valencia, Spain, on Tuesday, the ambitious prediction came from an analysis of the potential future of two technologies—photovoltaic solar panels (the ones on buildings and homes) and concentrating solar power plants.

Those plants, called CSPs, are an emerging technology in which arrays of mirrors reflect light (and heat) onto a tall central tower to create steam that is used to generate electricity (though several working models use various methods).

With the right amount of development, technological advancement, investment and international policy, plants and solar cells could each account for 11 percent or more of global energy, the IEA release reads, totaling close to 25 percent of the worldwide total.

Will it happen? The IEA only says it’s possible, but other reports bolster the argument that solar energy use is increasing.

In April, a release from the trade group Solar Energy Industries Association claimed that in 2009, solar generating capacity grew 37 percent in the U.S., with a 36 percent increase in revenues from power over 2008.

In a 2008 analysis similar to the IEA’s recent study, Scientific American mapped out a plan by which the U.S. could get more than two-thirds of its electricity and 35 percent of its total energy from solar rays by 2050—given an aggressive effort to wean itself off coal and develop new solar plants.  

Meanwhile, data from the same year—the latest available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration—showed that “The U.S. solar thermal industry experienced a mixed year in 2008.” A pair of major solar power projects in California and North Carolina got underway that year, but the industry suffered deflated growth due to the economic downturn, the site reads.

A June 2009 report, however, forecast strong numbers for the contribution of CSPs—with 7 percent of global electricity possible from the plants by as early as 2030. China, for one, is doing its part to bring the solar predictions to life.

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