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By 2050, solar could produce up to 25% of the world's electricity, studies say

May 12, 2010 |  2:47 pm

Solar power could produce up to a quarter of global electricity by 2050, according to two new reports Wednesday from the International Energy Agency.

The agency released two “roadmaps” for photovoltaics technology and concentrating solar power – or solar power stations -- during the Mediterranean Solar Plan Conference in Valencia, Spain. Together, the two types of solar systems could generate 9,000 terawatt hours of energy in 2050.

Concentrating solar power will be dominated by North America, North Africa and India, some of the world’s sunniest regions, the agency’s Renewable Energy Division said. It will be able to compete with coal and nuclear power plants by 2030.

Solar photovoltaics technology is expected to provide around 11% of global electricity by 2050, avoiding 2.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year – or the equivalent weight of around 340 million male elephants or 77 million whales like the one in Dana Point Harbor.

The technology is currently responsible for just 0.1% of electricity generation around the world.

The study, which was requested by the G8 member nations in a 2008 meeting as part of a series of 19 energy technologies, covers the science, financing and policy necessary to make photovoltaics an integral part of the global power infrastructure.

Solar photovoltaics generate electricity by converting sunlight using arrays of cells.

The agency recommends that governments establish long-term targets and policies around the technology to encourage investments and installations. Incentives and financing schemes, such as funding opportunities for rural projects in developing countries, would also help.

Right now, just four countries can produce more than one gigawatt of electricity from installed photovoltaics systems: Germany, Spain, Japan and the U.S. But countries such as Australia, China, France, Greece and India are catching up.

In many regions by 2020, power from photovoltaics is expected to be about as cheap as electricity from existing sources – a pricing point known as grid parity.

Global photovoltaics capacity has already been ballooning by an average of 40% each year since 2000. And public expenditures around the world for photovoltaic research and development have doubled over the same period, from $250 million in 2000 to $500 million in 2007.

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Andrew McLean, host of the CNBC show "Eco Capitalist," and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the world's largest solar plant, the NextEra Harper Lake Solar Electric Generating System facility in Hinkley, Calif., in March. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times.