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WFES 2016: The evolution of the solar industry

Blog post   •   Apr 15, 2016 10:52 SGT

Image Source: World Future Energy Summit 2014

The World Future Energy Summit 2016 featured a number of thought leaders in the energy industry speaking about the future of solar energy. Here are some highlights.

The World Future Energy Summit (WFES), hosted annually in Abu Dhabi during its Sustainability Week, was held this year over 18–21 January. The summit draws a wide audience ranging from economic and state leaders to innovators, researchers and entrepreneurs.

Shifting away from fossil fuels

A central topic at WFES 2016 was the global need to abandon fossil fuels in favour of clean energy.

The leaders of nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are acutely aware that their economies’ dependence on the hydrocarbon industry is not just a potential liability, but also subjects their nations’ economies to the instabilities of the hydrocarbon market. Many leaders are keenly determined to pursue “diversification” – a popular term used in the region to describe economic development independent of the oil and natural-gas industries.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who spoke during the opening ceremony, argued for a humanitarian case for clean, sustainable energy, noting that 4.3 million people die each year from complications of fossil fuel use such as coal fires and industry accidents. Both Ban Ki-moon and United Arab Emirates Minister of State Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber noted that climate change due to fossil fuel use is now a concern that cannot be ignored.

The rise of solar energy

Among the breadth of renewable energy sources, solar is particularly attractive for its ease of installations, reduced cost of adoption, and thus its ability to scale up.

Raed Bkayrat, vice president of First Solar’s Saudi Arabia regional division, noted that world solar power generation capacity grew from 1.5GW to almost 200GW from 2000 to 2015. He also commented on the easy modularity and expandability of photovoltaic units from microinstallations to very large ones.

Tim Armsby, a partner at Eversheds, a legal firm that supports companies expanding into clean energy, agreed. He observed that photovoltaic units are dually attractive for both developed nations and developing nations because of this same modularity, allowing electricity to be generated close to the source of its consumption.

For example, mountainous Pakistani villages that lack long-distance high-voltage connections to fossil fuel power plants, gas pipelines or suitable roads for tankers carrying liquid fuel are now turning to solar power solutions.

Toufiq Hawat of ADC Energy Systems also noted that due to this modularity, the investment required to build photovoltaic infrastructure is much cheaper than other renewable energy sources, such as wind.

Achieving grid parity

Can solar energy compete on a price basis with conventional fossil fuel sources of power?

To answer this question, industry analysts often use a cost parameter called the “levelized cost of electricity” (LCOE) – the cost to build and maintain a source of electricity generation over its lifetime divided by the total amount of power produced over that source’s lifetime.

Speakers at WFES noted the rapidly falling costs of photovoltaic units to the point that, in many areas of the world, the LCOE for solar photovoltaic sources of electricity has already fallen below that of fossil fuel sources. From a financial, environmental and practical point of view, it’s clear that the world is ready to adopt solar energy on a grand scale.

The future of energy generation

Now is a time of complex geopolitical and economic circumstances – but it is also one of unprecedented unity in the climate debate. The global political arena is not only united in its stance, as the 2015 Paris climate conference affirmed – it is also supported by immense economic potential.

As Sultan Al Jaber noted in his keynote address: “Never before have market forces aligned so closely with political choices. In fact, the economic case for everyone concerned has now become an undeniable opportunity…. And now, as a result of progressive advances in technology, policy and finance, those [energy] solutions are reliable, efficient and commercially competitive… Clean energy will play an increasingly important role in unlocking new sources of economic growth and transforming sustainability from an environmental imperative into a major force for economic development.”

The next step in translating policy into action will be to educate local integrators on the benefits of renewable energy. With the modularity of photovoltaic units lending itself to the scalability of solar energy, we can all hope to see its widespread adoption in the near future.

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