Thanks to significant investments in solar infrastructure and wider availability of consumer technologies, solar power is set to eclipse coal as a leading source of global energy. Yet, despite the decades-long gradual uptake of this renewable energy source, it was a recent event that has caused accelerated adoption of solar technology.

So, how do we ensure that growth in solar can be sustained, and that the projections made by experts will eventuate?

It all comes down to priorities.

Solar powers to front position in global energy race

The last few years have seen some significant milestones for renewable energy. Once a bit player in the energy sector, renewables have grown to become a major source of energy for many regions around the world. In fact, we’ve seen solar tip the scale and briefly become the leading source of energy Australia. Likewise, renewables (including solar) produced more power than coal in the United States for a several months earlier this year.

The total energy output of solar will rise to 4500 gigawatts in the next year. That’s the equivalent total power output of the United States and China combined.

A recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) shed even more light on these achievements and where things are headed for the solar industry. According to the Agency, solar is set to see unprecedented annual growth off the back of increases in global power capacities. Just within the next year, the IEA predicts that increased deployments of solar infrastructure should see the world’s energy output from solar rise to 4500 gigawatts (GW). That’s the equivalent total power output of the United States and China combined. 2023 will see an additional 440 GW added to the planet’s global capacity – the largest ever increase recorded year over year.

Breaking that down, the world added 50% more solar rooftop solar installations globally in 2022. And unsurprisingly more countries than ever are jumping on the solar train, with over 50 expected to contribute to global capacities annually by least 1GW come 2050. In Europe, those efforts are led by Spain, Germany and Poland, whilst China, the US, India and Brazil round out the top contributors list world wide.

To illustrate just how much solar use is accelerating, consider statements made by IEA back in 2014, when it was predicted that solar would take the lead sometime in the 2050’s. In the interceding years countless international forums have taken place, with world leaders and climate activists gathering to discuss the slower than acceptable pace of the transition to renewable energy. Scientists have stressed that the move away from fossil fuels is a key component in keeping global warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold – crucial for sustaining life on the planet. Yet suddenly, the world appears to be ahead of schedule. What changed in less than a decade to bring the end-date of solar supremacy forward by twenty-five years?

The energy crisis, not environmental concern, has powered the solar boom

Take a look around at the houses in your neighbourhood next time you are out for a stroll. In particular (and without drawing attention to yourself), check out the roofs of each dwelling. Notice anything? More likely than not you’ll see a smattering, or more, of solar panels on every other house. Long gone are the days where only the uber-wealthy would have a panel or two perched upon their residence.

Now, not to throw any shade at your next-door neighbour, who’s recently installed solar panels have certainly contributed to global energy capacities, but there exists a larger catalyst worth mentioning. One that explains the sudden and exponential increase in solar output the world over. See, it’s not just the case that a few more people are installing solar – this year marks the tenth record-setting year in a row and the largest year-over-year increase. There’s more of a story behind the recent boom than meets the eye.

The global energy crisis accelerated the growth of renewable energy sources, including solar.

As the IEA noted in a recent briefing, the global energy crisis accelerated the growth of renewable energy sources, including solar. But it’s worth unpacking what that term means to understand that it’s not a single event, but rather a series in parallel, that have acted as a catalyst for solar uptake.

The last few years have seen wave after wave of significant world events that put pressure on supplies of existing fossil fuels. Oil shortages during COVID that have led to recent price spikes, unprecidented weather events and global conflicts all contributed to a rocky energy situation. In order to mitigate these issues, world leaders made the call to pour funding into solar, ensuring their nations could free themselves from global dependencies for their fuel and power.

In April, the US government announced another $82 mil USD to go toward domestic solar projects. But that’s just the tip of the spear. The US are in a race against China to be the world’s supplier of solar, but they are facing an uphill battle. China currently accounts for over half of the world’s global solar installations, whilst the US is hovering around 12%, behind second place Europe at 15%. It’s a trend which is likely to continue thanks to the sheer amount of money at play. China has invested a staggering $546 bil USD, compared to the Unites States $180 bil – fewer funds by a factor of three.

There’s an inflection point looming

Just as the energy crisis helped spur rapid investment in renewables, its much-awaited conclusion threatens to derail our long-term projections and ongoing acceleration of sustainable energy. The sudden spike in fuel and power prices as a result of ongoing global conflicts caused governments to seek alternative sources, turning in haste to renewables like wind, solar and hydro. Safeguarding nations against energy scarcity is a great motivator, but it’s the carrot, not the stick, that wins in the long term.

Have governments gotten enough of a taste of energy independence to sustain their investment?

On one hand, environmentalists have gotten their way and the reasonable demand of saving the planet is being met – albeit in a less-than-direct manner. Countries are dumping money into renewables and the sector is absolutely exploding, but the motivations are not ideal. What happens if OPEC decides to fight back, and oil-producing countries flood the market with cheap fuel? Or if the war in Ukraine and other geopolitical tensions that have contributed to the energy crisis resolve themselves? Have governments gotten enough of a taste of energy independence to sustain their investment?

Beyond that, there is the ever-present threat of shifting priorities for incoming political parties. One leader’s vision of the future can quickly be displaced when they are voted out by a rival with opposing ideologies.

A better scenario is a shift away from economic dominance as a motivator, replacing it with a mindset geared toward the general survivability of our species. After all, the markets will be permanently closed if there are no people on our planet.

A bar graph displaying global annual solar capacity, with each year showing an increase.
There’s been a burst of solar installations in recent years. Credit: SolarPower Europe.

More tech is powered by solar than ever before

We’ve come a long way from solar power being a niche, expensive and inaccessible technology. And thanks to recent investments, getting your hands on a solar touchpoint is becoming even easier. Panel prices are falling, leading to new and invented applications of the technology. These days, you can see solar-equipped devices nearly everywhere, across a host of different consumer categories. From the new Toyota Prius, with its roof-top integrated solar panels, to recent Garmin Fenix sports watches that charge during outdoor activities. Solar is everywhere.

Own a Samsung TV? If you’ve bought one in the last few years you might find a solar panel to greet you on the back of your remote when it’s time to change the non-existent disposable batteries.

And yes, solar powered calculators are still a thing. First popping up in 1972, the energy needs of their tiny, low-energy liquid crystal displays were easily met the solar strip located on the device. Possibly the most enduring example of solar tech in a consumer product, chances are you’ve crossed passed with one of these during a math class.

Solar is hot right now, let’s keep it that way

Much like the technology itself, adopting sensible solar strategies won’t occur overnight. But time is definitely against us. Global temperatures are on track to hit record highs this year, a fact that is concerning for the long-term health of our planet (and species). So, what can we do to ensure the uptake of solar keeps going at the projected pace? We need to ensure governments don’t lose sight of their current interests should circumstances change across the world stage.

For starters, we need to keep consumer demand going strong. Yes, that is going to be more difficult should the oft rumoured global recession eventuate, but sometimes that just means making smarter choices that can often save you money in the long run. For instance, avoid bad investments in ‘cheap’ disposables that will cost you more over time – opt for renewable choices that are more sustainable and end up saving you money. Maybe right now that just looks like batteries and calculators, but every bit certainly helps. And if you can afford to, help someone who is willing to invest in sustainable options, but can’t due financial circumstances.

Likewise, countries need to help each other to break down barriers to renewable energy. Wealthier nations could (and should) afford to help developing countries get their own solar programs on track. And if it’s an easier sell to economy-focused leaders, the benefactor countries would be in a prime position to ensure they become the de facto suppliers of solar tech to those struggling nations.

Breakthroughs in technology will also help spur on solar power adoption and efficacy as a renewable energy source. We’ve already seen huge installations roll out across the UK, and Australian researchers are working on generating solar power at night. More of that please.

And if everything continues at this rate, then the future looks bright for solar.

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