The Blog of Changes - Duncan Freeman

Just how fast can China and Europe change? And just how fast can the relationship between them change? The answer, at least sometimes, is very fast.

A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicting that solar PV could, in one scenario at least, become the largest single source of electricity generation by 2050 made something of stir recently in the media. The report forecast that at solar PV could possibly account for as much as 16% of global electricity generation by 2050. These forecasts will almost certainly be revised as much can happen in the technology and economics of electricity generation in the next 40 years, but they are an indicator of the possibility for change.

Apart from the possibility that solar power will become a major source of energy, something else in the in the forecast is striking. As the following chart from the report shows, by far the largest growth in solar PV power will come from China. According to the report, at its peak China will contribute about 40% of electricity generation from solar PV in the world in 2030.

Chart 1: Forecast regional production of solar PV electricity Source: IEA

This suggests that in the future China will help change the world. However, that future is already arriving. In 2013 China was already the largest single market for solar PV installations in the world, accounting for 30% of net installations (new installations less facilities retired from service).

Chart 2: Share of net solar PV installations in 2013 Source: Earth Policy Institute

This fact reminds us how fast China, and the world is changing. Only a few years ago China accounted for a negligible share of installations. In 2009 China’s share of new solar PV installations was only 2%. The key cause of this change is that since 2011 the Chinese government has vastly increased support to the solar PV generation sector.

Chart 3: Share of net solar PV installations 2003-2012 Source: Earth Policy Institute

In the EU, the opposite has happened. As recently as 2010 the EU was estimated to account for about 80% of global installations, but it has now become a minor market. In 2013 the three leading markets were China, the US and Japan, which together accounted for 61% of installations. In 2009 Germany by itself installed over 50% of the solar PV added in the world, but in 2013 it accounted for only 9%. One of the main reasons for this has been a sharp reduction in support for the sector across Europe, especially in the eurozone, following the onset of the crisis in the EU.

Whatever these figures may say about the future of solar PV electricity generation, If nothing else, they are a reminder that nothing in China is constant, nor even in Europe. And the relationship between them, and their position in the world, can change rapidly.

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