Solar power is starting to get its day in the sun, so to speak. In 2014, 40 gigawatts (GW) of new solar capacity was installed globally, compared to 38.4 GW the preceding year. That might not seem like much, but these numbers hide the fact that new installations in Europe have been falling off a cliff since 2011 (because of local incentives changing and the general economic malaise), meaning that the rest of the world has been installing so much more solar since 2011 that it more than made up for the slack created by Europe, which was by very far #1 in solar at the time (they still are for cumulative capacity, but not for new installations).
"Europe now installs less solar power capacity than China or Japan individually, but still more than the US. However, Europe is still the world’s largest player with more than 88 GW installed at the end of 2014," writes the Energy Post. "China is currently the fastest growing market, installing 10.6 GW in 2014, followed by Japan with 9.7 GW and the US with just over 6.5 GW."
The total, global cumulative solar capacity now stands at around 178 GW. Another way to think about it is to say that it too decades to get to 178 GW, but lately we've been installing around 40 GW per year. Quite the acceleration!
Solar Power Europe (SPE) forecasts that capacity could reach 540 GW in five years in a high-growth scenario and would reach 396 GW in a “low-support” case.
The chart above shows the price of solar in orange, and the cumulative capacity in blue. As you can see, most of the solar capacity ever installed was made in the past few years.
The news now is that solar power has reached a nice milestone: 1% of global electricity production.
1% might not sound like much until you think about just how large the electricity-producing infrastructure around the world is, and how many decades it took to build out. Thankfully, it shouldn't take as long for solar to make a dent, because of this:
The price per watt of solar is falling rapidly, and now that it has reached a point where it is becoming competitive with all forms of electricity (and in a few years it'll be much cheaper than all of them), there's a tipping point that should make things accelerate further. The SPE predicts that we could have over 500 GW of solar capacity in 5 years, and that's huge, but just imagine how much solar we could have in 20 or 30 years!
The first 1% is the hardest one to get. It requires years of toil by engineers and manufacturers to improve the technology and get economies of scale. But the next many percentage points will be much easier and faster to get because we're standing on all this past work. That's the power of compound interest, one of the strongest forces in the universe, as Einstein famously said.