The Viability of Solar Energy | Clean Technica

Update (June 2012): For statistics and rankings on the top solar power countries in the world, check out: Top Solar Power Countries (Per Capita, Per GDP, Per TWh of Electricity Produced, & in Total).

Update (June 2012): For the latest US solar installation data and growth projections, check out: Solar in the US: Policy & Promise (+ 9 More Solar Charts & Images) and U.S. Solar Installations Continue to Surge

Update (December 2011): A recent study does a great job explaining how analysts systematically overestimate the costs of solar power and also points out that solar has hit grid parity in some regions. Nonetheless, even this study doesn’t take into account some key factors mentioned below.


To get rolling, above is a CNBC interview of me talking about why, very generally, solar power is important, and its potential to help the world today. Below is a more specific “About Solar / Why Solar” video followed by even more text on the subjects discussed therein, as well as some other topics (note that I have very little experience making videos, so take it easy on me! :D ):

The sections below cover:

  1. Solar Power’s Abundance!
  2. Falling Solar Power Costs
  3. Solar Energy Industry Growth
  4. Largest Solar Power Projects


If you’re looking for specific information on solar power technology, that’s not included here, but I’d recommend:

  1. How Do Solar Panels, Solar Cells and Solar Energy Work?
  2. Solar Thermal Panels, Practical but Not Yet Popular – A Solar Overview
  3. The Solar Power Wikipedia page

Solar Power Abundance!

world solar energy potential

“Comparing finite and renewable planetary energy reserves (Terawatt‐years). Total recoverable reserves are shown for the finite resources. Yearly potential is shown for the renewables.” (source: Perez & Perez, 2009a)

No other energy source compares to the energy potential of solar. Looking at the image above, make sure to note that circles for Coal, Uranium, Petroleum, and Natural Gas are TOTAL recoverable reserves, whereas the renewable energy circles (including the giant solar energy one) are PER YEAR.

Bottom line: Solar energy is the most abundant energy source on the planet, by far.

For a micro-scale example, the solar energy hitting the state of Texas each month is equal to the total amount of energy the Texas oil and gas industry has ever produced.

Solar Power Costs

Now, a lot of politicians and people connected to or confused by the fossil fuel industry like to contend that solar power is expensive. Well, to put the matter bluntly: “No, it’s not.”

Technology improvements and policies to promote research, development, and installation of solar have resulted in tremendous drops in the cost of solar power over the past several years. Even without taking important health and safety costs (note that a Harvard study concluded in 2011 that the health costs of coal are $500 billion a year in the U.S.), environmental costs, energy security costs, and other social costs into account, solar is already cost-competitive with new electricity from conventional energy options like coal and nuclear energy (if you take into account how long it would take coal or nuclear plants to get built) — see the graphs below.

solar pv energy cost trend

solar energy versus solar power costs

solar energy versus nuclear energy costs

That’s just an appetizer, of course. For more along these lines, here are a few more stories on solar power costs:

  1. True Value of Solar Power (linked above)
  2. Cost of Solar Power Competitive with Coal Some Places, & Dropping Fast
  3. GE: Solar Power Cheaper than Fossil Fuels in 5 years
  4. Solar Power Graphs to Make You Smile
  5. Historic Report: Solar Energy Costs Now Lower than Nuclear Energy

Solar Power Industry Growth

Dropping costs, as well as concerns like global warming and air pollution, have triggered massive growth in the solar energy industry. I’m going to focus on U.S. solar energy industry growth here, but the trends are similar globally and in other major economies, like China, Germany, the UK, Spain, and many other countries.

One of my favorite solar graphs is this one on the exponential solar power growth we’ve seen in recent years:

solar power growth

Some more key facts for you:

  1. The U.S. solar energy industry now employs over 100,000 people (more than the coal or steel industry, to put that into perspective).
  2. The U.S. solar energy industry is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S. It is creating jobs 10 times faster than the U.S. economy as a whole).
  3. Over 5,000 businesses (mostly small businesses) support the solar industry in the U.S., creating jobs for Americans in every state.
  4. Solar PV installations have grown about 69% in the past year (that’s 40 times faster than the U.S. economy as a whole).
  5. The U.S. solar energy industry is a net exporter, by $2 billion/year, and is even a net exporter to China (how many industries can claim that?).
  6. 9 out of 10 Americans think we should be developing and using more solar power.
  7. The utility-scale solar market has grown 171% in the past year or so.

Solar is expected to continue booming. In the U.S., it might even double each year up to 2020 (under the right policy scenario):

solar power growth projections

More posts on solar energy industry growth:

  1. Solar Industry on Solyndra, Tremendous Job Growth (100,000 US Jobs Now), & Doubling of Installed PV
  2. International Solar PV Nearly Doubled, PV Growth Doubled in 2010
  3. Solar Power Could Produce >50% of Global Electricity, IEA Report Concludes
  4. Cleantech’s Revolutionary Growth & Expectations for Coming 10 Years
  5. Solar Power Graphs to Make You Smile
  6. Solar Energy Markets and Growth

Largest Solar Power Plants

OK, an “about solar” page wouldn’t be complete without a list of the largest solar power plants in the world, right? (Though, note that much of the solar in the world is in small installations and one of the prime advantages of solar is its decentralization and its ability to help “democratize” the electricity system – even the CIA and Department of Defense have focused on the national security benefits of solar.) Nonetheless, I think almost everyone loves a list of the “largest _________,” so here are two current lists (largest solar thermal power plants and largest solar photovoltaic power plants):

Largest Solar Thermal Power Plants in Operation

  1. Solar Energy Systems” in the Mojave Desert of California, USA — 354 MW
  2. Solnova Solar Power Station” in Seville, Spain — 150 MW
  3. Andasol Solar Power Station” in Granada, Spain — 150 MW
  4. “Extresol Solar Power Station” in Torre de Miguel Sesmero, Spain — 1oo MW
  5. “Palma del Río Solar Power Station” in Córdoba, Spain — 100 MW
  6. “Manchasol Solar Power Station” in Ciudad Real, Spain — 100 MW
  7. “Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center” in Florida, USA — 75 MW
  8. “Nevada Solar One” in Boulder City, Nevada, USA — 64 MW
  9. 6 more solar thermal power plants in Spain have a capacity of 50 MW

Largest Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Power Plants in the World

  1. Gujarat Solar Park” in India — 600 MW
  2. “Golmud Solar Park” in China — 200 MW
  3. Perovo Solar Park” in Ukraine — 100 MW
  4. Sarnia Photovoltaic Power Plant” in Canada — 97 MW
  5. “Montalto di Castro Photovoltaic Power Station” in Italy — 84.2 MW
  6. “Finsterwalde Solar Park” in Germany — 80.7 MW
  7. “Ohotnikovo Solar Park” in Ukraine — 80 MW
  8. “Solarpark Senftenberg” in Germany — 78 MW
  9. “Lieberose Photovoltaic Park” in Germany — 71.8 MW
  10. “Rovigo Photovoltaic Power Plant” in Italy — 70 MW
  11. “Olmedilla Photovoltaic Park” in Spain — 60 MW
  12. “Strasskirchen Solar Photovoltaic Park” in Germany — 54 MW
  13. “Puertollano Photovoltaic Park” in Spain — 50 MW


This entry was posted in Solar. Bookmark the permalink.