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Analysis: How developing nations are driving record growth in solar power

Posted on 21 December 2017 by Zeke Hausfather

This is a re-post from Carbon Brief

Emerging markets now account for the majority of growth in solar power, according to new data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).

Led by China and India, these developing economies are behind dramatic recent growth in solar capacity, which expanded by 33% in 2016.

China alone installed 27 gigawatts (GW), around 40% of the world’s new solar last year. Brazil, Chile, Jordan, Mexico and Pakistan all at least doubled their solar capacity in 2016.

In total, solar accounted for 19% of all new generating capacity in the emerging markets tracked by BNEF.

However, solar still only accounts for 5% of capacity and 1.3% of electricity generationglobally. But its exponential growth in recent years has been driven by national policies and a combination of photovoltaic module prices falling more than threefold.

Exponential growth

Over the past decade, solar capacity has increased exponentially, driven by falling module prices and national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or expand access to electricity.

While Europe, the US and Japan led the way in early solar installations, over the past few years most growth has been driven by developing countries, with China in particular starting to dominate the solar sector.

The figure below shows total global solar capacity installed each year from 2003 through to 2016 by region.

Cumulative solar photovoltaic capacity by region and year from 2003 through 2016. Based on data from BNEF/Climatescope and the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

Europe drove much of the early solar capacity growth – and cost reductions. In 2016, however, Asia became the dominant region. North America has also ramped up its solar capacity considerably. While still relatively small, solar capacity in Africa and South and Central America also experienced rapid year-over-year growth from 2013 onwards.

Mapping solar use and new installations

Carbon Brief combined the new Climatescope BNEF data for emerging markets with data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, to show the growth of solar over recent years in a wider range of countries.

Total solar capacity, shown in the bar charts below, are dominated by high-population countries, such as China and the US. China alone accounts for 26% of the world’s solar installations, with Japan, Germany and the US each accounting for around 13%. The UK has the sixth largest installed solar capacity of any country, larger than India, France, Spain and Australia.

Total solar photovoltaic capacity by country, both cumulative (top chart) and added in the year 2016 (bottom chart). Based on data from BNEF/Climatescope and BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

In 2016, China added around 27GW of total solar capacity, more than any other country and about 40% of all solar capacity installed globally that year. The US was the second largest, at around 15GW. India was the fourth largest source of new solar capacity, installing more than 4GW in 2016. The UK installed around 2GW in 2016.

To normalise by a country’s population, the map below shows the total amount of solar power capacity per-capita. A per-capita metric allows comparisons across countries without large population countries overshadowing rapid changes elsewhere.

Cumulative solar photovoltaic capacity per capita by country in 2016. Based on solar capacity data from BNEF/Climatescope and BP Statistical Review of World Energy and population data from the World Bank. Countries in grey have no data available. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

Germany has the largest installed solar capacity per person, at nearly 500 watts per person. It is followed by Japan at 337 watts, Italy at 318 watts, Belgium at 302 watts, Greece at 243 watts and Australia at 228 watts. Other European countries round out the top 11, with the UK at number 9 with 179 watts. The US has the 12th largest installed solar capacity per person at 125 watts, while China is the 24th largest at 56 watts solar per person.

While European countries have some of the highest solar capacities per person, their growth has slowed in recent years. The map below, which shows new solar installed in 2016 per-capita, paints a somewhat different picture.

Solar photovoltaic capacity per capita by country added in the year 2016. Based on data from BNEF/Climatescope and BP Statistical Review of World Energy and population data from the World Bank. Countries in grey have no data available or no new solar in 2016. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

In 2016, Japan had the most new solar installed per person, at 68 watts. The US was near the top at 46 watts, while the UK and Australia had 31 watts. China installed more solar per-person than Germany in 2016, which has capped the rate of renewable additions and moved to auctions for new capacity.

While per-capita installations across Africa are relatively low, the region’s growth is still noteworthy. According to BNEF, more than 1.5m households in Africa now use solar home systems, with mobile-money enabled financing plans resulting in a nearly 300% increase in cumulative installations relative to 2015.


While Europe, Japan, Australia and the US drove early installations of solar power, in recent years developing countries led by China have taken the lead and now account for more than half of new solar installations globally.

Solar power accounts for only 5% of capacity and 1.3% of electricity generation globally today, but is growing rapidly. Solar is widely expected to continue its rapid growth as prices continue to fall and climate policies and national solar targets drive adoption at scale.

The International Energy Agency suggests that by between 2020 and 2025 solar will be cheaper than coal in the US, India and China. However, there are still challenges associated with variable generation and the need for flexible backup or battery storage, which will become increasingly important as solar contributes a larger share of the electricity mix.

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Comments 1 to 14:

  1. One of the greatest challenges Africa has is a lack of energy infrastructure, because without electricity nothing much else can progress. Yet they have considerable solar potential.

    Local decentralised solar power in small instillations can do much to help families and business, even if it just helps power medical equipment in isolated regions, or provide some light at night with a few batteries added obviously. The potential is huge, and its sad a region with great sunlight hours, does not have more solar power. Decentralised systems may be of more practical viability than large expensive centralised supply.

    The did a great article recently on energy needs and solar power in Africa, here.

    Africa has jumped ahead with mobile phones helping greatly with business. Solar power will help in a similar way, without needing massive investment like a hydro power station, or large cental solar array and expensive lines network.

    IMO one of the best favours the western world could do is targeted assistance with solar panels in Africa and other poor countries. It will help their people as a compassionate gesture, and ultimately help them contribute better to the global economy, and we all benefit from this.

    However such aid should be arranged to ensure its spent on solar power, and not going into leaders pockets or military spending. It needs monitoring and some conditions.

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  2. As this is your first post, Skeptical Science respectfully reminds you to please follow our comments policy. Thank You!


    Let us assume that AGW is accepted as a universal truth on the worldwide stage. Action then has to be taken to slow down, or even stop, the rate of CO2 production. Clearly with the significant impact of fossil fuel burning now accepted, surely we must turn attention to alternative forms of electricity generation. The sceptical science team seems to have its focus firmly fixed on wind and solar electricity generation systems, but little evidence is presented on the most obvious source of non-carbon generation, namely nuclear generation.

     Why is this? Is there an ideological bias against even mentioning the word “nuclear”? Or is the discussion of nuclear power versus wind and/or solar power too embedded in economic arguments to be of limited interest to those commentators who are scientifically trained and inclined?

    If the same level of scientific analytical rigour in climate change research was brought to bear on economic analysis of alternative energy versus nuclear energy generation, there might be surprising results emerge that confound the conventional “wisdom” that alternative green forms of energy are cheaper than nuclear power, when levelised costs of ‘firm’ energy, LCOFE, are taken into account. In the same way that climate change science points to a complex of factors that have to be considered, so perhaps it might be the case that full consideration has to be given to non-carbon energy generation. 

    Unless and until climate change supporters start to open up the discussion on alternative non-carbon energy sources, we will never find the answers to creating long term, sustainable, economical, reliable and non-polluting power generation.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Can you support your implied assertion that "climate change supporters" are unreasonably opposed to nuclear power? Sks has struggled to find someone that discuss the peer-reviewed literature on nuclear power alternatives in the past. This is however a specialist topic over at Bravenewclimate and perhaps is better discussed there.

  3. Dugga12 @2

    I don't think anyone disputes that nuclear power is carbon-free — if you discount the mining, transportation and processing of its fuel — but it takes a helluva long time to plan and build a nuclear power station.  By the time you have enough new stations up and running we have to be at zero carbon anyway.  What do we do in the interim?  We might as well just go full bore for solar and wind power.  I've also seen indications that the latter is becoming comparable in cost to nuclear power.

    I would argue that if you have a nuclear power station, keep it going, but for any replacements for fossil plants, go for solar and wind.

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  4. Dugga12@2,

    Please pay attention to your words. In last paragraph, you called those who accept climate science or renewable energy "climate change supporters". That is very misleading, even insulting term, against those who try to teach the truth about AGW and the urgent need of AGW mitigation. Any honest person in your shoes would issue an appology here. You sould have used a term "climate science supporter" if you have science teachers in mind or "climate action supporters" if you have activists in mind.

    Sorry for my nitpick, if your error is, as I hope a genuine typo and not deliberate repeat of a misleading, insulting term. This term was coined by AGW deniers who not only don't understand science but also don't care about the meaning of their words.

    As for the issue you raise, a lack of interest about nuclear energy on SkS, the reason for it is that that form of energy is in decline and more expensive than solar thermal or PV or wind, and even more expensive than gas, when all cost of setup, production and decommissioning taken into account. Numerous articles have been written on nuke economics and why it is on decline. Others may point the sources. If you have sources that point out otherwise (e.g. what your "levelised costs" means) plaese elaborate. Better if you do it on the appropriate thread, if mod points to you. Otherwise, your talk is an empty hand waiving.

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  5. Dugga12,

    There are a certain number of nuclear proponets that post at SkS.  I have asked at least four of them to write a post supporting nuclear power  Not one of them has felt that it was worth the effort to write something in support of nuclear power.  Perhaps you can write such a post.  If you provide links to peer reviewed literature it is likely to be put on the site.  I await your subission.  (If you only link industry propaganda it is much less likely that your article will be posted).

    Most energy researchers do not consider nuclear any more.  Jacobson  (summary powerpoint) concluded that the very long build cycle for nuclear plants meant that more CO2 was emitted while the plants were under construction than if wind and solar were used.  Abbott 2011 lists 15 reasons why it would be impossible to build enough nuclear power to generate a sigificant (>10%) amount of power using nuclear power.

    There are currently about 2 nuclear power  plants under construction in the USA, they are 5 years behind schedule (for a 3 year schedule), billions over budget and look most likely to be cancelled.  2 other plants were cancelled last year after billions were wasted.  I know of two  plants under construction in Europe, Both are enormously over budget and years behind schedule.  Westinghouse, the primary builder in the USA, has declared bankruptcy and might take all of Toshiba with it.  Nuclear is not economic.

    You will have to address these primary issues in your article:

    1. Nuclear plants take so long to build that it will be too late by the time they are done
    2. They are too expensive and not economic.
    3. There are not enough rare elements like hafnium and berrilium to build out nuclear plants.
    4. There is not enough uranium.
    5. To power the entire world we would need nuclear plants in Syria, North Korea and Iran.  That is generally considered unsafe.

    If you send in an article I will bring up the remaining dozen items on Abbotts list.

    The people at SkS are volunteers.  If you do not think it is worth writing in support of nuclear why should they? 

    Good luck with your article.  I look forward to reading it.

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  6. Dugga @2 , the Nuclear industry is dying.   Like a critically-endangered species, its growth rate is tapering off toward zero.   The number of planned new plants is small — plans are being cancelled or put on indefinite hold.   Nuclear (fission) cannot meet world electricity demand in a timely manner — the commissioning/build timing is decades too long.  The cost blow-outs too huge.

    Already about half of the USA nuclear plants are not profitable.   Not profitable, Dugga — and that situation will worsen as wind/solar grows cheaper by the year.

    Dugga, you simply haven't noticed that nuclear (fission) generation has been extensively discussed on SkepticalScience threads.   Dugga, your advocacy comes 25 years too late.   "Nuclear" is a very bad choice — it is simply not economic; it is too slow to build (to counter the global warming) ; and it is not "distributive" enough for impoverished nations.

    And there is another concern.  Would you like to see many Third World [in its usual pejorative meaning] nations like Zimbabwe, Angola and Chad — in possession of breeder reactors?   And who will pay for these massively costly reactor plants?  We are already having enough difficulty getting First World nations to donate the small sums required for solar panel installations in Africa !

    Dugga, your advocacy is hopeless, in the face of reality.

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  7. If nuclear power was a great option, generating companies would build more plant. But they aren't, so that tells us something.

    There are 449 nuclear power stations globally, according to the nuclear energy institute. This provides 11% of global nuclear energy production.

    So crudely calculated we would need something like another 5000 nuclear power plants spread all around the world, over the next 50 years. This does not appear easy, given slow building and regulatory approval process and high capital costs. Such large numbers of reactors also puts pressure on prices of reserves of uranium. The risk factor from accidents would certainly become very 'significant'.

    Nuclear power only makes sense to me if its the cheapest option in a few countries with limited other alternatives.

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  8. igel,

    Your 5000 nuclear power plants would only be able to generate the electricity used, not all the heat and industrial power.  You need 15,000 running nuclear plants to generate total world energy.  Even then you would only generate the average power, not the peak power.  You would need storage for peak power (just like with wind and solar).  You would expect a major accident every month.

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  9. The nuclear power idea looks dead and buried.  

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  10. nigelj@1,

    In addition to assisting all poorer populations develop improved ways of living, it is important that the help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals is maximized. Thta would include maximizing the development of local business and industrty to produce, install, and maintain any new facilities.

    And you are correct about the fatal flaw of pushing 'major infrastructure' like centralized large power generation facilities and the required high capacity distribution networks.

    Decentralized power generation with low capacity interconnection as back-up to provide any short-term regional power assistance is likely to be a more sustainable way to assist the poorer people in Africa (and many other regions - even well developed areas).

    The desire of major multi-national corporations to 'profit from building major infrastructure' needs to be pushed aside no matter how much more 'profitable for the nation providing the supposed assistance' it is to have a corporation the 'assisting nation benefits from benefit from 'supposedly providing development assistance'. In many cases that push to build major infrastructure with loans from entities like the IMF and World Bank has put many nations into financial slavery, being controlled by external pressure to do what external pursuers of Private Interests that are contrary to Sustainable Development want done (including imposing austerity measures to reduce funding for education, health care and other assistance to the less fortunate that is essential to Sustainable Development).

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  11. Dugga12,

    Fundamentally, nuclear power would not pass a 'Sustainable Development' evaluation (refer to the Sustainable Development Goals for details). The Affordable and Clean Energy Goals require renewable/sustainable energy generation and nuclear generaton consumes non-renewable resources and produces wastes that are not currently able to be safely completely neutralized.

    A related problem of nuclear power is potential for the related production of nuclear weapons, something that is clearly contrary to a Sustainable future for humanity.

    Those evaluations must be the first screening of what is acceptable. Then there can be economic comparisons of the options that have been 'determined to be Susainable Development'.

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  12. Okay, I give up, and will unsubscribe myself from commenting on articles of interest to me, but I will continue to read them. I am no climate change denier, rather I readily accept that AGW is real and the issue needs to be addressed urgently. I am after all a grandfather concerned for the future of my grandchildren and the world in which they live.

    I have installed pv panels on my roof, and because of ridiculous government subsidies, courtesy of the poor taxpayer, I no longer pay an electricity bill. I am indeed fortunate that I have the financial resources to have been able to pay for the capital cost of my system, but there are many others unable to do so. In the end, everything comes down to money, whether mine or the taxpayers.

    I am no economic or financial genius, so I have to rely on experts for my advice. I have taken an interest in the arguments over cost of renewables, but have come to rely on recent reports put out by Lazard, with their two most recent ones - Levelised Cost of Energy LCOE 11 and Levelised cost of storage LCOS 3 - which attempt to strip out the cost of energy and storage sources without any subsidies.

    The latest opinion from Lazard is -

    “Although alternative energy is increasingly cost-competitive and storage technology holds great promise, alternative energy systems alone will not be capable of meeting the base-load generation needs of a developed economy for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the optimal solution for many regions of the world is to use complementary conventional and alternative energy resources in a diversified generation fleet.”

    If some conventional energy sources contribute to global warming and other conventional sources contribute less, surely the latter sources ought to receive more consideration in providing base-load generation. Comparisons between conventional sources then come down to costings, which the Lazard papers provide.

    I try to keep an open mind on most issues, which does become somewhat harder at 75 years of age. However, I’ve always kept in mind a little piece of advice given to me by the high school inspector, after I had attended a workshop given by an older science teacher colleague on grinding lenses for telescopes. I was obviously over enthusiastic about getting students involved in this project, when the inspector drily remarked “Remember, the only difference between a groove and a grave is one of depth”. In other words, read widely, and keep up to date, which was advice I passed on to my students.

    For those who might want to find out what the latest development in nuclear power generation might include, consult the Westinghouse web site for the eVinci mini generator.

    Over and out, goodbye and good luck.

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  13. I fail to see how government subsidies that support sustenable energy are ridiculous. The subisidies going to fossil fuel industries seem to me much more deserving of such adjective, considering that these industries have been established for over 100 years and been able to generate gigantic net profits in a very consistent way.  I have no doubt that Westinghouse presents their products in a very favorable way. They do have a pretty serious incentive to do so, as they do in these products finding a market. If I was to buy every product presented in a favorable way by its maker, I would have gone bankrupt at age 18.

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  14. Dugga12 @ 12

    Hang in there and provide comments.  Sometimes you will get somewhat negative reactions from some posters but I think it is valuable to this website to have some commenters who accept the fact of AGW but are not completely sold on wind and solar as solutions given their intermittency. 

    I similarly have thought that nuclear power was being neglected as a non-polluting alternative source of energy.  I have to admit that reading the two Abbott papers (a professor in Australia) certainly has "cooled me" (excuse the pun) on the potential of nuclear power to supplant fossil fuels.  I think it was michael sweet who first directed me to the Abbott papers.  The real issue raised in my mind by the Abbott papers is the question of whether we really have enough uranium left in the world to supplant fossil fuels (leaving aside thorium and reprocessing).  But another point made by Abbott relates to the actual number of nuclear plants that would have to be built in the US.  I cannot remember the number but it was fairly staggering. 

    If you would like some up to date information on the "history" of why the US turned away from nuclear power in the 1970's, you may want to look at the Climate Etc website which has a recent posting on this.  It also delves into why the costs of nuclear power rose so dramatically as a result of the increased regulation.   There is another article on various alternative energy choices for Texas which makes for interesting reading.

     I have to admit that Abbott convinced me of the logic of focussing on thermal solar power rather than PV solar power but this Sks website is not dedicated to considering alternatives to fossil fuels but only convincing people that AGW is a serious problem.  I still think that we need natural gas electrical generation as the "back up" to any wind or solar solution because of the additional costs of storage (today the only proven one is pumped hydro from what I can see). 

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