Solar Power 2014–Still Growing, Still Niche

If lily pads on a pond double the area they cover every day, and it takes 48 days to cover the pond, how long does it take them to cover 50% of the pond? (Answer at the bottom.)

The world is still looking for cost-effective substitutes for fossil fuels. Popular opinion still is heavily against nuclear, and environmental advocates still lobby against hydroelectric installations–at least in the developed world. (They don’t like it in emerging countries either, but they don’t get listened to quite as much down south.)

What’s available is wind, biofuels and solar. Wind and biofuels are stuck in controversy, so what is acceptable is solar.

Solar is hampered by its intermittent nature, unable to dispatch energy 24/7.

However, despite its cost and intermittency, solar power continues to grow. This actually seems to frustrate those who rely on free market economic theory, as they don’t understand why people buy solar installations for their rooftop when it is more expensive than other sources of energy. They don’t seem to understand that there are more signals in a free market than price. Solar can be a vanity purchase, a hedge, a political signal a Veblen good–all of these can explain many of the purchases of solar power.

In 2014 global solar installations grew by 20%, to 42 GW, certainly not solar’s best year. Those installations, when added to those of previous years, mean that solar power is making a contribution to global totals. However, despite impressive growth, it is still an asterisk in world energy consumption.


Solar can show impressive curves when measured by itself. But when you look at global totals it is not so impressive.



Solar power continues to get cheaper. Five years ago the average household income of a household buying solar was $150,000. Now households earning half that can think about solar if they choose.

Slide 1


Solar is still more expensive than the alternatives, however, when you look at the Levelized Cost Of Energy.


So, assuming that solar power grows at 20% a year, driven by falling prices, environmental concerns and rising utility costs (which seem to pay no attention at all to the cost of fuel), what will solar look like in the near term future?

Solar power provided about 2% of all renewable energy in 2013, or about 1.12 quads. If it continues to grow at 20% a year (which is slower than the rate at which it grew in the past two decades) its delivered energy will amount to:

2020: 4 quads

2025: 10 quads

2030: 25 quads

2035: 61 quads

2040: 153 quads

2050: 952 quads

Sure hope it works out that way.

Answer: 47 days


22 responses to “Solar Power 2014–Still Growing, Still Niche

  1. Are start-up to installation subsidies included in the Levelized Cost Of [Solar] Energy?

    Aside from vanity, as a consumer, my decision would depend on what it cost to install solar compared to the local cost of electricity. However, as a taxpayer, I would look at it quite differently, knowing that subsidies are not sustainable over the long term.

    Here in the Midwest, we are saddled with outrageous utility costs because we are forced to subsidize wind-farms. What is our alternative? Install subsidized solar to compete with subsidized wind?


    This link highlights the natural cycles in volcanism and therefore climate. The authors act they discovered something new. This has been around since the 70’s at least. This is what we should be rsearching.

      This is Scafetta’s article showing much the same thing.
      This is the best way to subtract out the natural variability. Once you do that, much of the heating is in the northern hemisphere above the 30th parallel, meaning it’s amn made but not co2.
      We should be worried about something different.

      • Exactly. If the low hanging fruit of carbon soot had been attacked first- develop treaties and technologies to reduce soot from diesel, coal and bunker fuel oil, we could positively impact human and presumably animal health, improve glacier and sea ice, Instead we pour money out to the CO2 obsessed and get literally nothing of value for our money.

  3. The better term for so-called “renewable power” is “intermittent alternative power”.
    As long as the sun sets or the skies cloud, solar will be intermittent.
    Solar can grow, but like lilies, only in the right sort of ponds: Not too deep, not too shallow, still water, open to the…… sun.
    Solar gives the appearance of high growth because its baseline is so tiny. Solar will still be growing,and still be a niche, in 100 years.
    In fact think more of lily pads. Most people only see them when they are in a wealthy person’s water garden. Where do we see most solar?

    • To which the only logical response is, let’s make everybody rich enough to have a water garden…

    • Actually, India has one of the fastest-growing solar industries in the world. Yes, it is federally subsidized, but the cost of solar electricity has been dropping to ~6.5 cents/kWh. It won’t be just a “niche” for long, but it will always be a minor component, never a major component.

  4. About 50% of the cost of installing solar power now comes from the solar panels themselves and the other 50% comes from installation and the cost of other materials. Even if solar panels were free in the future, the price of solar power would only drop by 50%.

    • Hi Frank, installation costs vary widely throughout the world. In the U.S and Japan they are higher than in many other places. The same is true of BOM materials, ranging from inverters to cabling. There is scope for the same type of cost reductions as in the panels themselves.

      Standardization in rack mounting, telescoping the permit process–there are a lot of things that can get easier, quicker and less expensive than they are now.

  5. Hi, interesting piece. However, any idea what solar panels would cost if solar power was used for making them? And it seems only recently a solar panel can be expected to produce more energy during its lifetime than went into making it. Say what if some time in the future a solar panel can produce twice the amount of energy that went into making it, what is the real cost of this energy if produced by solar?

    I guess the low solar cost these days are due in part of cheap coal power for making them..

  6. Well, if the amount of energy you spend in making solar panels is about much as you can hope to generate, I fail to see the point in solar at all. Use that coal energy for something useful instead.

  7. Pingback: Why are we blaming solar customers instead of the utilities? | The Lukewarmer's Way

  8. Your pond is pretty big to start with.

  9. Ozzie Zehner is the author of the book “Green Illusions” and he has the best takedown of solar photovoltaic that I’ve ever seen. I’ve yet to see any of his points on PV refuted and I’ve been looking.

  10. Nate Lewis has the only credible solar strategy that I can see. He’s a CalTech prof who is trying to make hydrocarbon fuels from sunlight. He has a number of lectures on YouTube that are very good at explaining the scale of energy. As someone who has skipped and slept through a lot of lectures, they held my attention:

    • Canman,

      Thanks for posting this!

      I jotted down some quotes from the video for future use:

      “There is always a problem with everything” 57:20 +/-
      “Million dollars for a mile of transmission lines”
      “We better store it or we have NO use for it” 1:48+/-
      “Grid parity is NOT(a) valid (concept) for intermitted sources (of electrical power generation)0: 21 +/-
      “The storage medium of choice is in chemical bonds”
      “The grid has infinite storage in the chemical bonds of methane 1:57
      “we have some membrane chemistry to invent” 2:01
      “Fishing expedition… we don’t know….” 2:04

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