Solar Likely To Become Dominant Source Of Electricity Globally By 2050, IEA Forecasts

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

Originally published on RenewEconomy.

The International Energy Agency says solar energy – a combination of solar PV and concentrated solar thermal with storage – is likely to become the dominant source of energy across the world, accounting for more than 27 per cent of all electricity produced by 2050.

The IEA says its core scenarios for reaching climate targets by 2050 call for 68 per cent of generation to be sourced from renewable energy, but in the (increasingly likely) event that carbon capture and storage and nuclear cannot take up their imagined shares, then the IEA has painted a “high renewables” scenario where solar takes an even greater role.

This might sound like some mighty radical thinking from what is one of the world’s most conservative energy organisations (it was established in the 1970s to devise policies to ensure a continuation of oil supplies), but in reality it is not.

Solar PV, for instance, is likely to expand way beyond even the IEA’s most bullish scenarios, as a result of widespread deployment and continuing cost cuts. The IEA suggests that solar PV could account for 16 per cent of global generation by 2050, although this would require an average of more than 116GW of solar PV to be deployed over that time.

Its estimates, however, seem conservative given that most private forecasters suggest that the solar industry will reach 100GW installation a year anyway by 2017 or 2018, and capacity is likely to grow further beyond that. Its “vanilla” scenario for reaching its climate goals require just an average of 67GW of solar PV to be installed a year. The solar market is likely to reach that figure in 2015.

In any case, the IEA says that solar thermal with storage, the kind of facility that has been deployed in Spain, and is now being constructed in the US, and in South Africa and Chile, will also play a critical role, accounting for 11 per cent of global electricity supply in 2050 because of its ability to switch on production, and switch off, at any time of day.

This, as many independent analysts have told us before, is going to create a radical change in the way that electricity markets operate. What is interesting is that the IEA is now buying into these scenarios, albeit more tentatively than others.

For that reason, it is interesting to note how the IEA sees twhat a high solar scenario could look like (see graph below). Solar PV (in yellow) becomes the dominant energy source during the day, while CSP with storage (orange) is used to supplement production during the day and into the evening. In practice, the CSP with storage can be switched on and off whenever it is needed.

Purple represents other dispatchable energy, which could include fast-response gas-fired generation, but is also likely to include most storage. The green line represents base load power, which plays just a limited role in overall generation. Of course, such scenarios would change dramatically according to location, and the individual solar resource.

IEA high solar mix

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Our Latest EVObsession Video

I don't like paywalls. You don't like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it!! So, we've decided to completely nix paywalls here at CleanTechnica. But...
Like other media companies, we need reader support! If you support us, please chip in a bit monthly to help our team write, edit, and publish 15 cleantech stories a day!
Thank you!

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

Giles Parkinson

is the founding editor of, an Australian-based website that provides news and analysis on cleantech, carbon, and climate issues. Giles is based in Sydney and is watching the (slow, but quickening) transformation of Australia's energy grid with great interest.

Giles Parkinson has 596 posts and counting. See all posts by Giles Parkinson

19 thoughts on “Solar Likely To Become Dominant Source Of Electricity Globally By 2050, IEA Forecasts

  • First a minor detail:
    typo? “likely to expand way behind even” I assume you meant beyond.
    Hope you can still edit it.

    So, do you think the IEA is genuinely changing? The latest headlines are veering towards advocacy of an energy tranision. In the past they have always published reports showing the renewable buildout petering away, and many of us think this had to do with pro-incumbent institutional incentives.

    • IEA had a change in leadership not that long ago that really changed things there, from what I understand.

  • 116gw total deployed by 2050 or 116gw/year?

    • A year. We have passed the number already for cumulative installations – it was 100GW at the end of 2013 and the pace is well over 40 GW a year.

  • Giles: No link! It must be the “Energy Technology Perspectives 2014” (link).

    A question to commenters. Most of the analytic effort is going into the evening peak for electricity demand: many people are at home cooking and watching TV; others are in the lit streets, bars and cinemas, so the demand is real. The 3am trough is left unexamined. But it’s still extraordinarily high: about half the peak, 20 GW in California. What on earth is it going on? Street lighting, freezers, hospitals, police stations, and other 24/7 activities can’t add up to that much. Some industrial processes like refineries run all the time, but how many? I suspect that as obsolete “baseload” generating plants (nuclear and coal) have to run all the time anyway, their output is more or less given away, so there’s little incentive to economize. That does not mean that in a high-renewables scenario without “baseload” plants and the giveaway pricing they lead to, the minimum demand is in any sense given or incompressible.

    • In Australia a lot of off peak electricity goes into heating hot water at a special low rate. The owners of coal plans invented a new tariff, off peak hot water that provides cheap electricity to electric water heaters after midnight. Something that was a real kick in the guts for Australia’s solar hot water industry. It’s a wonderfully well designed system that in South Australia often results in grid demand being higher after midnight than during the evening peak. And while this might not be terribly sensible from the point of view of efficiently running a grid, it is very nice for getting a spike in electricity prices when they would otherwise be falling, so from the point of view of coal power plants it is wonderful.

  • If solar continues it’s current growth trajectory and batteries keep getting cheaper along the same trajectory, solar will become the #1 electricity source around 2030-2035.

    The IEA’s predictions have never been even close to correct though. They basically make predictions that align with what utilities *want* the future to be.

    • What would that take?

      Coal is currently about 40%. Assume that NG stays about where it is and wind keeps growing as it has then wind could easily replace half of coal over the next 20 years. Solar could get the other half. (And I’d bet that hydro, tidal and geothermal would eat away some of the NG.)

      I see a solar/wind race. I wouldn’t bet on the winner. Wind has a price lead and produces more hours of the day.

      • But the hare catches the tortoise, however far behind it starts.

        Assume both wind and solar are nearly free, say 1 cent per watt. Storage is more expensive. The theoretical maximum for solar pv is meeting all demand at 4 p.m. on an overcast day in midwinter. So we would need enough wind to cover evening demand in midwinter fully. We need enough storage (or another despatchable like biomass or geothermal or P2G) to cover a few weeks of windless midwinter nights. So each of the three legs has to be capable of meeting all demand for part of the time. Staggering amounts of midsummer solar and wind would have to be curtailed or given away to P2G plants.

        Reintroduce realistic costs and you change the picture. But not by a huge amount, unless progress stops in one leg and not the others. The same holds for evs, smart grids, and so on. We are stuck with the triad.

        One objection to my solar scenario is MacKay’s: in Britain, you run out of rooftops and plausibly available land first. But Britain has exceptionally poor solar resources combined with high population and a very inefficient industry and housing stock. It’s not a model. At the 30-year horizon we are thinking of here, we can also reasonably hope to double solar panel yields (efficiency + wide-angle collection), which automatically eases the land take problem..

        • Biomass+biogas+pumped hydro+ existing backup should do the trick up until 30-40% wind and solar.

          But above that storage will be needed. Hopefully by then MW scale batteries will be cheap enough.

          • You guys need to think bigger. Superconducting and ultra high voltage technology is advancing very fast. If we were to build lines from Maine -> Nova Scotia -> Greenland -> Iceland -> England -> Rest of Europe storage would hardly even be needed. You’d be able to transmit solar PV electricity to dark places from light places. The investment wouldn’t even look that big when you compare it to what the fossil fuel industry is spending at the moment.

            Europe is already using a form of said technology to link up the EU with China trying to do the same in the east.

            The US has enough cheap and sunny real estate to install 2-3 solar panels for every human being on the planet.

            Think big!

          • I’m somewhat in Shiggity’s camp. I don’t see movement from North America to Europe, for example, but I do see solar from Southern Europe/North Africa to the UK and UK offshore wind back to SoEuro /NA.

            We don’t now have many ‘one state/country only’ grids. Power gets moved all around Europe. We’ve already connected Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. We’re about to hook up Wyoming as well. (Canada may be in the mix. It is on the eastern side.)

            The larger the grid, the more we can share resources. That means less spending for storage and backup generation. It means that dispatchable generation such as hydro can be used smarter, for infill and not when other sources are available.

            I wonder if the “UK can’t generate all it’s own renewable energy” might be FUD from coal and nuclear? Try to keep the conversation limited to what the UK can and can’t do and the job becomes harder.

            Rather than each state/country trying to generate all the power it uses make the goal each state/country will generate as much power as it uses. If someone has a lot of wind then trade with others that have a lot of solar or a lot of hydro. Or even someone who has the ability to build a lot of storage.

          • “Europe is already using a form of said technology to link up the EU with China trying to do the same in the east.”

            Yes, but this is not enough to avoid storage. If you really want to avoid storage you must connect both hemispheres, possibly whole world. I like this idea but it’s not realistic in next couple of decades.

            Supergrids are in a way the opposite of locally distributed generation. Power is transfered from thousands of km away, just the opposite of local generation. But resources can be really efficiently used.

            But I think that locally distributed generation and local battery storage will prevail in the short and medium term. Prices of batteries seem to fall faster than supergrids are developed.

    • Storage is needed if you want to go solar more than 10-15% of supply.

      Wind can be done 30%, maybe even 40%, but solar needs smart grids and storage already at 10-15%.

      This is due to the fact that solar (PV) gives you power only at daytime, mostly at noon +-3h. You can do some hot water heating and EV charging during that time, but still there’s a need for low cost big scale storage.

      I’m looking forward to see how things will develop in Germany.

      • No storage is required for solar to supply over 10-15% of electricity supply. Here in Australia we would need to get about 15% of our total electricity use from solar before we started to exceed current demand on mild, sunny weekends. But long before we reach that point lower electricity prices when it’s sunny will have caused demand to shift to the daytime increasing the total amount of electricity we could get from solar without exceeding demand, as our current electricity use is an artifact of our coal plant dominated grid. Also, low daytime electricity prices will let existing pumped storage capacity to be charged during the day. And then there’s the fact that if at times solar produces more electricity than people want, it’s not a problem. There’s no law that says solar is never allowed to produce more electricity than people want to use. After all, it’s not as if we’re wasting money on fuel. Just for the sake of the arguement, if point of use solar could be installed for 10 cents a watt, then all else equal, Australia would get about two-thirds of its electricity from solar.

        • You can shift some demand to daytime, but not all of it. Demand for lighting will always be at night, some things have to run 24/7 (big data centers, hospitals, etc). And with lots of middle day demand grids eventually become overloaded.

          We’re not there yet, but storage will eventually be needed.

          Germany is at 5% solar PV, Italy is 7%, these are the first countries that will have to deal with it. I think at about 2017-2020 this will start happening at large scale.

          • I’d look at what will happen in Hawaii. Utility scale Solar in Kauai is already at 3% of total electricity use (10% of daytime) and two more projects in the works (one started one in planning) will bring it to 15% (that’s around 50% of daytime use), and that’s not counting rooftop solar.

            Hawaii is a best case situation for solar installation with high insolation and high electricity prices, and a worse case situation for peaking since best case is connecting to the other Hawaiian Islands.

  • Wind,Biomass,Biofuel have also major energy providers for the future.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Comments are closed.