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Solar broke records in 2016 and global growth looks unstoppable

OPINION | Solar has gone from a niche to a world-beater in ten years but there's more to be done, writes James Watson

Solar power was a niche technology of a few fanatics as recently as ten years ago. Our figures show that in 2007 we had around 10GW — the equivalent of ten large coal power plants — of solar installed in the world. At the end of 2016, there were over 300GW of solar installed globally; no other technology has seen such a rapid rate of deployment in such a few years. SolarPower Europe are also forecasting that by 2021, with the right conditions, we could have almost a terawatt (1,000GW) of solar installed across the globe.

This dramatic rise of solar can be attributed to a number of factors, but the primary driver is the cost. The International Energy Agency estimates that in the space of seven years the cost of a solar system fell by 75% — and the costs keep falling. This is making utility-scale solar the cheapest form of electricity production across much of the world. Forget about coal, nuclear and offshore wind — solar is delivering cost reductions every year, every quarter, every month.

The solar revolution is in full swing and shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, in 2016 solar had another record year of deployment with 76GW being connected to grids all across the world. Our forecasters have gazed into their crystal balls and predict that 2017 will be an even bigger year with more than 80GW of solar being hooked up to grids from Berlin to Beijing and back again. Solar was the most deployed power generation technology in the world in 2016, and it seems likely that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

The phenomenon of solar is also a global obsession. In 2010, our figures showed that the European market accounted for more than three quarters of the installed capacity; today this is down to about one third. We could lament this, but we should be positive. 

In 2016, Europe was the first region to reach 100GW of installed solar, even if it was quickly caught and surpassed by Asia-Pacific in the same year. Europe is still playing its active role in the development of solar, but the global thirst for solar power is evident everywhere. Last year, the top three markets for solar deployment were China, the US and Japan, and this is now reflected in those markets also being the top three for cumulative installed solar power. So there has been a power shift, but one that bodes well for solar globally.

"If we can get the right policy framework in place in Europe, we remain convinced that 2016 should be the bottom of the connection valley"

In Europe, we now stand at a crossroads. Momentum has slowed with 2016 seeing less than 7GW of solar connected in Europe — a more-than-20% fall compared to 2015. Problems beset the sector, from trade measures on imported solar panels to taxes on electricity produced from them, but many of these matters are now being addressed by the European Commission and its sister institutions. 

If we can get the right policy framework in place in Europe, we remain convinced that 2016 should be the bottom of the connection valley and that we will see growing rates of installation again. This will be led by countries such as France, Germany and Turkey.

In 2016, the UK was once again — for the third year running — the leading solar market in Europe. With the incredibly unstable political situation in the UK it seems likely that it will drop out of the top three markets in 2017. Germany and France are set for solid if not spectacular growth in 2017 and Turkey will likely appear on the scene for the first time.

If things do go well in Europe, we can envisage 200GW being installed by 2021. This is no mean feat and would show that solar is alive and kicking in Europe as elsewhere in the world. Roll on the solar revolution!

SolarPower Europe’s new Global Market Outlook for Solar Power 2017-21 can be downloaded at www.solarpowereurope.org

James Watson is chief executive of SolarPower Europe

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