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When Will Solar Overtake Oil?

Several years ago, when I was working on my book Power Plays, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future of energy. One thing I concluded was that solar power would become one of the world’s most important sources of energy – if not eventually the most important source of energy. I also discussed this in the 2007 column “The Future Is Solar.”

There are a couple of reasons I still believe this. But first, I should make it clear that it will be a long time before solar power rivals the consumption of oil in the global energy market.

While solar power is growing rapidly, we still use about 100 times as much energy in the form of oil (and about 90 times as much in the form of coal). Further, even though solar power is growing at a fast rate, the absolute growth in oil consumption from 2013 to 2014 was about 3 times the growth in solar power consumption. In other words, even though solar consumption grew at a 38 percent rate and oil consumption grew at about a 0.7 percent rate, the actual increase in solar consumption was 11.6 million metric tons of oil equivalent versus an increase in oil consumption of 32 million metric tons. Related: The End Of The Petro-State Era

So I want to at least offer that perspective, which is often missing in articles about renewable energy sources. Still, what I would say today is that solar is the most important emerging energy source, and over the next one to two decades it will surpass coal and begin to rival oil in the amount of energy it supplies globally.

I believe the key drivers behind solar’s continued growth are that the energy conversion efficiency is relatively high (~an order of magnitude greater than photosynthesis) and that the costs for solar PV have become competitive in many markets. Further, those costs continue to fall. Solar is a very attractive option for those seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Among all major energy sources, none added capacity as rapidly as the 50 percent average annual growth rate of solar photovoltaics (PV) over the past five years.

(Click to enlarge)

Growth in solar PV over the past decade has resulted in a nearly 50-fold expansion in the amount of deployed solar PV capacity since 2004:

(Click to enlarge) Related: Trump's Energy Policy: Less Regulations And Approval For Keystone XL

Of course capacity isn’t the same as production. As I pointed out in Don’t Blame Renewable Energy For Dying U.S. Coal Industry, the capacity factors for renewables like wind and solar power are low relative to their fossil fuel competitors. So an installed megawatt (MW) of solar PV capacity won’t produce the same amount of electricity over the course of a year as an installed MW of coal-fired power (for instance). In fact, it could take more than three times the installed capacity of solar to generate the amount of electricity from a given capacity of coal-fired power in a year.

This means that if solar is to make a serious dent in the world’s fossil fuel demand, we are going to be installing a lot of solar panels. But who makes these solar panels?

According to research and consulting firm GlobalData, the Top 5 solar PV manufacturers in 2015 were China’s Trina Solar with 4.55 Gigawatts (GW) of solar PV panels produced, followed by Canadian Solar (3.9 GW), Chinese companies JinkoSolar Holding Co., Ltd. (3.79 GW) and JA Solar Holdings Co., Ltd. (3.38 GW), with South Korea’s Hanwha Q CELLS Co., Ltd. (3.2 GW) rounding out the Top 5. While China dominates in global PV manufacturing, the two U.S. producers in the Top 10 are First Solar and SunPower.

If solar PV growth continues as I expect, the sector should do quite well overall, but SunEdison’s recent bankruptcy showed that bad decisions can quickly take down large companies in rapidly growing sectors. It’s important to keep that in mind and do your due diligence before diving into this sector.

By Robert Rapier via Energytrendinsider.com

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  • Bob Wallace on May 30 2016 said:
    I missed the point at which you adjusted primary energy use based on engine/motor efficiency. Internal combustion engines are very efficient while electric motors are around 90% efficient. Subtract another 10% energy loss for battery charging.

    Assuming a 20% efficiency for the typical ICEV and 80% for an EV we will have to replace only 25% of the energy in petroleum.

    BTW, we're seeing large increases in wind turbine capacity factors. GE has reported that they are routinely seeing CFs above 50%.
  • David on May 30 2016 said:
    You are correct in assuming that solar will eclipse (pun not intended) all other forms of energy generation. Your numbers are seriously off.

    From The Article "In other words, even though solar consumption grew at a 38 percent rate and oil consumption grew at about a 0.7 percent rate, the actual increase in solar consumption was 11.6 million metric tons of oil equivalent versus an increase in oil consumption of 32 million metric tons."

    .7 percent compounded yearly x 10 years = ~7.2 %
    38 percent compounded yearly x 10 years = ~1,800 %
  • Adrian on May 31 2016 said:
    Capacity factor is a bit of a canard. Yes, wind produced at just 37% of capacity in 1Q16 and solar was worse, but coal was only at 42% capacity for the first quarter, and natgas was just 29%. (Per EIA).

    What's missing from this article is that oil and renewables aren't really competitors at present - very little transport is electrified. Sales of BEVs and PHEVs continue growing though...
  • Ronald C Wagner on May 31 2016 said:
    It is very telling that natural gas is not even mentioned. It could replace all other forms of energy combined. It can fuel transport. It is clean and cheaper than any other form of energy. It can also be used as raw material for needed products.
  • David Stein on June 05 2016 said:
    Not only is natural gas useful in transport, it is predominately methane which can be produced renewably (bio-gas) and distributed through the same infrastructure.
  • Joe on July 30 2016 said:
    From the graphs, the growth of solar power capacity is phenomenal. However, I'm most interested in the length of the payout of an installed solar system for home use. The model is that the solar panels (manufactured in where ever) are installed along with the equipment to feed power back into the grid. On certain parts of sunny days you can actually have a net feed back into the grid. All this reduces reduces your power bill. However, I have not seen a system with a payout less than 30 years long. With time the solar panels will continue to come down and the power rates will go up and the payout time should come down. Call me when the payout drops to five years.
  • David Hrivnak on August 01 2016 said:
    Joe my solar has a 17 year payback and 8 years if you figure in we no longer buy gasoline as we power our cars from our solar array. So the payback is getting better.
  • A Hockings on September 05 2016 said:
    Yeah the figures are a bit off here.
    What's not being taken into account is that there will be a tipping point with electric cars and the change to them will be extremely swift.
    With most of the main car makers having big electric car plans and at least three 200+ mile cars appearing next year, the decrease in the cost of large scale Lithium will accelerate.
    The mainstream 25 grand 250 mile car is very close and when that happens most average mileage drivers would have to be really dumb to buy an ICE car.
    At $100 per kWh (I reckon around 2020), it's game over for oil.
    My point here is the rapid take up of electric cars will only accelerate the installation of solar and in turn also push the price of solar down further.
    Exciting times ahead.

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