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OVERVIEW - Utility scale solar prepares for the road from Paris

Ranking of leading countries for cumulative deployed utility solar capacity. SeeNews Renewables & Wiki Solar. All Rights Reserved.

As solar power becomes a meaningful contributor in leading countries, Wiki Solar's Philip Wolfe assesses how they are faring in the lead-up to COP21.

November 30 (SeeNews) - For the first time since international climate change negotiations began, large-scale solar generation has reached the critical mass where it can be a significant contributor to the pledges of leading countries. 2015 will be the sixth consecutive record year, lifting global installed capacity above 60 GW.

Leadership in the sector has changed repeatedly over this period, and will continue to evolve as countries like Chile, the Philippines and Brazil ramp up their activities.

The approach to incentives is also evolving. The initial growth surge in Europe was prompted mainly by direct incentives in the form of prescribed feed-in tariffs paid for every megawatt hour of energy generated. Other countries, like the USA, have adopted more indirect fiscal incentives, such as investment tax credits. Additionally some states have promoted renewable generation by placing obligations on energy suppliers – such as Renewable Portfolio Standards and the Renewables Obligation.

As the capital cost of solar power stations has plummeted, the level of financial support required has declined. In some parts of the world unsubsidised solar power generation is now competitive with traditional sources of electricity.

Because of the reducing cost differential, many countries are adopting forms of auction mechanisms, where solar power producers bid the price at which they are prepared to supply electricity; and the lowest cost bids are accepted. Auctions of this type are now undertaken in Brazil, Germany, certain Indian states and elsewhere.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE IN PARIS

The COP21 negotiations will of course consider issues of climate change adaptation and mitigation far more broadly than simply renewable power. But let's look at the worldwide deployment of utility-scale solar to see which countries can be proud of their achievements and which 'must try harder'.

China often seems to be on the defensive in these discussions, but can be truly proud of its deployment of solar and wind power capacity. The country has quietly climbed to the top of the league table and is now stretching away with the possibility of reaching almost 20 GW capacity by the end of the year. We at Wiki-Solar had thought that the USA had leapfrogged to the top of the table for a time last year, but it seems this was not the case. It takes a few months to validate figures on Chinese deployment, but it now appears to have been consistently ahead since 2013.

The United States too has in its time been accused of failing to take climate change seriously. Its record in deployment of solar generation projects is variable, but the most progressive states, like California and North Carolina, have achieved impressive results. The key issue for the future, if investment tax credits are phased out next year as scheduled, will be whether high growth can be maintained by unsubsidised deployment in those areas which have reached grid parity.

Europe has a historically good record in stimulating the growth of renewables deployment. However, the early leaders including Germany, Spain, France and Italy have been losing ground recently. This is mainly because they have been retreating from feed-in tariffs – felt to be increasingly unaffordable – and have not yet embedded effective market-based incentives.

The apparent rising star is the United Kingdom, but that is largely because it entered, and is now leaving, the tariff-based incentives later than other parts of Europe. The British negotiators in Paris will be hoping other countries have not noticed that it is increasingly out-of-step with the rest of the developed world; having terminated virtually all incentives for renewables in favour of ongoing support for fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Japan has been marching rapidly back up the solar league table, having dropped out of the top ten between 2010 and 2013. Solar energy is becoming a no-brainer in a country with scarce fossil fuel resources and reservations about nuclear power.

Canada, led by Ontario, was an early and consistent adopter of solar power and can be confident of its sustainability credentials. South Africa’s advance we suspect, is prompted more by energy security than environmental issues; but that makes its progress no less commendable.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what about India? That country is likely to be in the firing line over its growing use of coal. We should point out, however, that India has a good record on the deployment of utility scale solar and is expected to rise back up the table to third place before too long. Many gigawatts of new capacity have been announced for construction within the next two-three years. Though there is often a significant delay between the announcements and the reality, Prime Minister Modi had an excellent track record as the previous governor of Gujarat and will be seeking to replicate this on a national basis.

OTHER RECENT UTILITY-SCALE PV DEVELOPMENTS

Three large solar projects have been announced in power-hungry Bangladesh; of which the largest – a 200 MW plant by SunEdison in Teknaf – is scheduled for completion in mid-2017.

The first utility-scale solar project in the Cayman Islands has been started and is scheduled for commissioning next year.

The giant McCoy project in Eastern California is now under construction, with the first sections due for connection before the end of this year; rising to 270 MW during 2016. Further phases may be added thereafter.

Source of data

All the details in these posts are based on the Wiki-Solar Database of some 5,000 utility-scale PV solar projects around the world. Unless otherwise stated, capacities are expressed in terms of the AC output of the plant, and ‘utility-scale’ is defined as projects of 4 MWAC and over.

About the author:

Philip Wolfe has been in renewables since the 1970’s when he was founder Chief Executive of BP Solar. He led companies in the PV sector until the early 2000’s. Since then he has undertaken more broadly-based roles in renewable and community energy.

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Philip Wolfe has been in renewables since the 1970’s when he was founder Chief Executive of BP Solar. He led companies in the PV sector until appointed Director General of the Renewable Energy Association from 2003 to 2009. His book on utility-scale solar was published in 2012.

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