The prospects for solar in a 1.5C world


Photovoltaics will have to attract $237 billion per year to 2050 to ensure global heating is capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, and we will need to have 14 TW of solar generation capacity installed by that point.

The rewards, other than saving the planet, will amount to 15.4 million solar jobs by mid century as the sector leads the way in a renewables employment market that amounts to 38 million positions this decade and around 42.5 million in 2050, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Those are just two of the headline solar-related predictions contained in the agency's 312-page World Energy Transitions Outlook report.

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The study considers two future energy scenarios: business-as-usual and a system which could keep us within the 1.5C limit by reducing our 2010-baseline level of carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and to net zero by mid century.

The document stresses the benefits to be gained if the world's governments can treble the rate of clean energy plant deployment this decade, to reach 10.7 TW of generation capacity in 2030, with the help of a global carbon price of around $75 per ton.

The renewables employment figures cited above compare to 18 million clean energy jobs by 2030, under the policies currently pledged around the world, and 23 million by mid century.


The investment costs appear daunting, according to IRENA, which said the $9.8 trillion currently pledged for renewables plants to 2050 needs to grow to $34 trillion. With plans in place to invest $43.1 trillion in fossil fuel facilities over the next 29 years, the study estimates that figure needs to come down to $15.7 trillion, with $24.2 trillion of the cash earmarked for polluting fuels needing to be switched to clean energy.

That the Abu Dhabi-based NGO is not calling for zero investment in fossil fuels by 2050 is bound to infuriate many. IRENA estimates 6% of the electricity generated in mid century will still come from natural gas, owing to the dispatchability of generation from gas-fired turbines, and 4% will be generated by nuclear facilities.

While renewables will have to account for the rest of the electricity generated, according to IRENA, as much as a third of the hydrogen to be deployed for industry; marine and aviation transport; plus seasonal clean power storage, will be blue – generated from natural gas facilities equipped with carbon capture and storage, a technology the report dubbed a “transitional solution” for countries heavily dependent on oil and gas.

While the report calls unequivocally for no new investment in coal, and for phase out from the polluting fuel to begin today in all nations, even the death of coal predicted as necessary this decade comes caveated with an exception for continued industrial uses.

If renewables capacities can hit 10.7 TW by 2030 – doubling the number of global solar jobs en route – a 90% clean electricity system in mid century will require 28 TW to be reached by that date, according to the report, with the help of $4.4 trillion per year in energy transition funding and including the roll-out of 5 TW of hydrogen electrolyzer capacity. Those electrolyzers, installed at a rate of 160 GW per year to 2050 – mostly after a post-2030 ramp up to around 400 GW per year – will offer 2 PWh of hydrogen storage capacity, which alone will feed demand for 22.7 PWh of electricity generation.


The world will also need 16 TWh of battery storage capacity by 2050 – more than 42 TWh if electric vehicle battery volume is included, according to the IRENA publication.

The private sector will drive the bulk of the investment needed, according to IRENA, offering 81% of the cash this decade and 83% for the following two decades, although the NGO stressed the vital role of public money in nailing down the conditions needed in diverse global markets to secure that speculative capital. It is the allocation of public money which will herd shareholders away from fossil fuel investment although that needs to be achieved with long-term, stable policies, IRENA added, in a note critical of the boom and bust nature of short-term instruments such as the U.S. investment tax credit legislation.

IRENA offered hope of what is possible in a section devoted to the renewables policies and ambitions which are already in place by pointing out the nations of Bhutan and Suriname have already achieved their net zero targets. Guesstimating every dollar spent on the energy transition will reap returns of $2-5.50 in the long run – mainly from public health and climate change mitigation benefits – IRENA again attempted to reinforce the urgency of the need to kick on.

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