2012 was a record year for utility-scale solar power, 2013 looking bright as well

by James Martin II on January 2, 2013

Commercial-scale solar farm

In addition to the phenomenal number of residential solar power system installed in 2012, the number of large-scale solar projects have also increased immensely. According to numbers from industry analysts Wiki-Solar, around 3 gigawatts (GW) of utility-scale solar power were installed globally last year, easily beating the previous year’s figure of about 2.3GW, even with official final tallies unresolved.  Given the smaller overall number and greater individual noteworthiness of large-scale solar developments–namely solar parks and solar farms–it is easier to keep track of  their numbers than those of small-scale rooftop solar installations, which have become so numerous as to be virtually uncountable. Accurate figures on the capacity of newly installed smaller systems do not usually emerge until several months into a new year. Wiki-Solar’s numbers are nonetheless indicative of the energy revolution that is currently underway across the globe.

Renewable energy accounted for a large chunk of global growth in new electricity generation capacity in 2012. This is a trend that is unlikely to be reversed thanks to renewable energy targets set by countries worldwide. In the UK, for instance, the government has mandated that 15% of power generated must come from renewable sources by 2020. Solar power–both utility-scale and distributed small-scale–is now seen as crucial to meeting this goal and has been added to the government’s new renewable energy roadmap as of this year.

Despite the encouraging signs for the future role of solar and other renewables in the world’s energy mix, Philip Wolfe of Wiki-Solar notes that many large-scale utilities have yet to come on board in terms of solar investments. He hints that this hesitation could ultimately undermine the dominance of incumbent utilities in the power generation business. “It is interesting to note,” Wolfe said, “that some of the world’s largest utilities are not fully engaged, especially after reports that some German suppliers, which have been sceptical about renewable energy investments, are starting to lose control of their markets.”

Cumulative global large-scale solar capacity now sits at around 8.5GW–equivalent to roughly 4 large coal-fired power plants, which are admittedly still much more prolific than any type of renewable energy plant. Even so, the scalable nature of solar power–particularly solar photovoltaics (PV)–means that new solar power capacity can be installed incrementally and with shorter construction periods than conventional, fossil-fuel and nuclear fired plants because of the smaller overheads involved and the less onerous bureaucratic approval processes necessary to get a plant up and running, not to mention the incentives that have been put in place to encourage them. In the UK, these are mainly the feed-in tariff and renewable obligation certificates (ROCs). This means that renewable energy capacity has the potential to slowly begin overtaking conventional sources by mitigating the need to build new multi-gigawatt coal, nuclear, and gas plants by incrementally matching growth in electricity demand.

The decentralised nature of solar parks and solar farms also means that they are accessible as investments to a significantly wider range of demographics than coal or nuclear plants. As Bloomberg New Energy Finance has pointed out, a wide range of forward-thinking organisations are already opting to invest in renewable energy not simply to boost their ‘green’ credentials, but to save or make money. (IKEA, with its self-imposed 100% renewable energy target, is just one example.) Numerous local councils and even community groups are also turning to solar and wind as ways to build resilience in their communities to future fuel price rises whilst simultaneously investing in the future.

2013 is widely expected to be a year of continued growth for renewable energy globally and across the UK, with new records being set as the price of renewable energy technologies continues to fall and conventional electricity sources continue to increase in cost. In fact, it has recently been predicted that the UK could see installed solar PV capacity leap from its current level of around 1.4GWp to a whopping 8GW in just the next 3 years. Along with such massive growth will come employment opportunities in an otherwise tepid economy–a win-win situation for UK residents and government alike.

Will 2013 be the year that the world’s next industrial revolution reaches its critical mass?

© 2013 Solar Selections

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