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Much faster than you might think, solar experts say - but it's still half of what's needed
How fast is solar energy taking off around the world?
In 2007, China's planners set in motion an ambitious plan to produce 1.8 gigawatts of solar-generated electricity by 2020.
Last year the country produced 28 gigawatts – 15 times what it had hoped for by 2020.
Now, China is expected to more than triple even that production – to 100 gigawatts – in three or four years. That would make the solar energy it creates larger than the total of all electricity produced in Britain today, says Qi Ye, director of the Brookings-Tsinhua Center for Public Policy at the Brookings Institution.
"Nowhere else is it happening at such a massive scale and such a rapid pace,” Ye said during a panel at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford this week.
But China is hardly alone. Around the world, investment in renewable energy has exceeded fossil fuel investment for the last four years, said Aimee Christensen, the founder of Christensen Global Strategies, an advisory firm that focuses on building "transformational impact”.
Apple Corporation now gets 97 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, she said. Walmart, the United States' largest user of solar power after the Pentagon, is aiming for 100 percent, as is Google.
"They wouldn’t be making these commitments if this wasn’t a smart, cost-effective strategy,” Christensen said.
Even British Gas, one of the largest energy suppliers in Britain, is now fielding demand for solar power not just from green-minded household buyers but from large corporate customers, the company says.
Companies have found that installing rooftop solar and ground heat pumps can cut their energy costs by 10-15 percent, said Stuart Rolland, the managing director of British Gas Business.
"Three years ago, there was no demand," he said. Now, fast-rising demand is creating a market for "huge" volumes of solar energy. And as solar costs fall, the need for solar subsidies is also falling away, he said.
"It’s a no-brainer, solar will stand on its own two feet… in the next few years,” he said.
But will scorching demand for solar power really be enough to effectively wean the world off fossil fuels and address climate change?
ONLY HALF OF WHAT’S NEEDED
Dan Kennedy, the co-founder of Sungevity, which aims to build networks of solar power users, predicts solar use will grow by 10 to 15 times its current levels in the next 15-20 years, and fossil fuels will fall to less than half of the total global power capacity.
But that level of solar energy production is still only half of what is needed to meet both rising demand and efforts to hold global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the aim of U.N. climate negotiations.
"We need to do twice as much in half the time," he said.
How could such a dramatic scale-up happen? It will take everything from a surge in solar entrepreneurs and solar finance to technological solutions, such as better and cheaper battery storage and smarter solar grids, as well as a focus on ensuring solar technology works reliably and is accessible to the poor, specialists say.
Right now, solar energy reaches many of the world’s poor in the form of lighting for homes – something that’s becoming much more widely available as the cost of solar panels plunges.
But lighting is just a marginal difference to many of the poor, notes Harish Hande, the head of SELCO Foundation, which works on bringing services and technology to the poorest in India.
What the poor need, he said, besides reliable systems that are maintained, is a way to turn solar energy into a living, through things like highly efficient sewing machine motors or soldering irons that can run on solar power. Just as important, poor people need markets for their products and access to loans – an "ecosystem" around solar energy.
"We pay too much attention to solar electricity," he said. "We are not looking at the other end of the spectrum that is more critical."
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