Rising sun

Jeremy Leggett
argues that solar energy could meet most of the world’s needs within a decade.

Twenty years ago, at the time of the second oil price shock, Sheikh Yamani, the Saudi Arabian oil minister, warned his fellow OPEC ministers: ‘If we force western countries to invest heavily in finding alternative sources of energy, they will. This will take them no more than seven to ten years.’

The world then chose not to invest in renewable energy. It remains dwarfed by oil, gas and coal, even though we have been warned for most of the period since that if we continue burning so much carbon-based fuel we will unleash economically and environmentally ruinous global warming. But it could, in principle, provide most of the world’s power and transport needs within as little as a decade.

In every region of the world, innovative application of new solar technology is providing high-tech, emission-free and creative design solutions. In the developing world these are beginning to bring clean energy to remote rural communities that have traditionally relied on candles, wood and paraffin. The 2 billion people who now lack electricity could have their needs met by micropower technologies, avoiding the need for new, polluting, costly and centralized grid infrastructures.

From Cyprus to Sweden, from China to Australia, new markets and new manufacturing capacity are helping to make solar photovoltaics (PV) a global industry. Just one manufacturer, Sharp, is producing 94 megawatts (MW) per year. The resulting huge economies of scale in manufacturing will play a major part in ensuring the long-term health of the industry.

In the United Kingdom, Solar Century and other domestic solar companies have completed many commercial, industrial and household solar PV projects with partners including Sainsburys, Orange and Laing.

But there is some way to go before solar PV is viewed universally as an automatic mainstream energy option rather than a niche alternative appropriate only for local community projects or one-off prestige buildings. The Solar Generation, the recent report by the European Photovoltaic Industry Association and Greenpeace, demonstrated that the global solar PV industry could be on the verge of an unprecedented boom in both the developed and developing worlds. Its projections indicated that solar PV could easily supply electricity for over 1 billion people, including 30 per cent of the entire continent of Africa, and provide 2.3 million jobs by 2020. By 2040, it could provide 26 per cent of total projected global energy demand.

If we are to meet and ideally beat these targets, the industry will need to redouble its efforts to break down barriers of ignorance, vested interest and short-termism. As the G8 Renewable Energy Task Force report concluded, the barriers are essentially financial and political, not technological. We must improve education and awareness of our products and their application. Political and institutional inertia is our greatest enemy.

If anything, these long-term targets underestimate the potential of solar PV to become a mainstream energy option in the first decade of the 21st century. They assume, for example, the implementation of welcome but modest national support programmes in OECD countries – such as the 70,000 solar roofs programme currently under way in Japan, which is projected to spend just $195 million in 2002. In fact the 2020 and 2040 projections could be achieved far earlier if the necessary practical steps are taken now by policy-makers and regulators.

San Francisco provides both an inspiring and practical benchmark for European legislators. As a result of a $100 million bond issue and other local initiatives, the city could produce up to 20MW of solar PV electricity within 12 months, with the prospect of an additional 50MW over the next three years – five times what the United Kingdom, for example, projects for 2004/2005.

The appalling events of 11 September and their aftermath have inevitably re-focused policy-makers’ attention on the need for energy security and diversity. In the run up to Rio+10, national governments will be reminded by non-governmental organizations and others of their Kyoto commitment to deliver ‘development and increased use of new and renewable forms of energy’. With a strategic and long-term approach, and sufficient resources, renewable micropower technologies could grow explosively, rapidly eating into the $2 trillion global energy market

Jeremy Leggett is Chief Executive Officer of Solar Century.

PHOTOGRAPH: Anthony Karbowski/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Secure and sustainable | Fuelling multilateralism | Meeting growing needs | Make way for the zero-litre car | Power sharing | Oil and rising water | Energetic challenges | At a glance: Energy | Competition | Power to the people | Cutting carbon | Winds of change | Power and choice | Rising sun | Give us a wave! | Less energy, more wealth

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate and Action December 1998
Issue on Climate change December 1997
Theodore Panayotou : Win-win finance (The Way Ahead) June 1997

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Climate change
Air pollution