The Photovoltaic Solar Potential

Photovoltaic solar electricity is probably the electricity production mode which offers one of the greatest opportunities. The ultimate potential (or energy reserve) of solar is indeed considerably higher than other forms of renewable energy. The sun transmits around 122,000 TW of energy every second to the Earth, out of which 88,000 TW are reflected back towards space. The rest is absorbed and contributes to the natural greenhouse effect. This massive amount of power corresponds to 3500 times the power that humanity would consume in 2050 (© OECD/IEA, Solar 2014). Favennec (2014) estimates that the ultimate amount of solar power that could be captured on the planet to produce electricity averages 26,000 TW. The current forecast of solar electricity production in 2035 (© OECD/IEA, WEO 2012), yet very conservative, corresponds to only 0.003% of this potential. Solar electricity thus represents a fantastic opportunity.

Solar energy is everywhere. Obviously, the global horizontal irradiance (GHI) varies across countries. It averages 1200 kWh/m2/year in Europe and tops 2300 kWh/m2/year in the Middle East. Every country receives sunlight so solar energy can contribute to energy independence.

Solar panels can be installed on the rooftop of every house in the world to produce electricity. This pervasiveness is unique to solar energy. With an average production of solar panels of 140 kWh/m2/year, worldwide electricity demand would be met with 125,000 km2 of solar panels, or 0.08% of the planet’s total ground surface. As an example, for France, this corresponds to the rooftops of half of the buildings already existing (Manicore 2014).

Photovoltaic solar production has grown rapidly, with an average 49% growth in the last 10 years. In 2013, 37 GW of production were installed, bringing the total installed base to 135 GW. The overall level of investment reached 96 billion dollars. China was the top country in terms of photovoltaic solar installation, with over 11 GW installed during the year, followed by Japan and the United States (© OECD/IEA, Solar 2014).

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