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UN cites solar potential as Japan scraps nuclear plan

11 May 2011

Latest report from the UN’s climate-change panel says that photovoltaics could deliver up to one-third of global electricity by 2050.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believes that up to one-third of the global electricity supply could be provided by photovoltaics in 2050 – although a more likely result is that it will deliver less than one-tenth of the total.

The upper estimate represents the most ambitious of the various “climate stabilization scenarios” projected in the panel’s latest report, which estimates the potential impact of renewable energy technologies on the global energy supply.

According to the IPCC’s preliminary report (the final version will be published on May 31, with a full chapter devoted to solar energy), as much as 77 percent of the global energy supply could be provided by renewables including solar by 2050 – compared with just under 13 percent now, which is almost exclusively provided by hydro-electric power.

However, to achieve that target would require enormous investment – estimated at more than $12 trillion over the next 20 years to begin with. Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group III, admitted at the launch of the new report: “The substantial increase of renewables is technically and politically very challenging.”

The UN report models more than 160 different scenarios of the potential market penetration of renewables over the next 40 years, and looks at four specific scenarios in greater depth. The precise assumptions made in those scenarios will be made clear when the IPCC report is published in full – with the most pessimistic scenario suggesting that renewable energy will account for only 15% of total supply by 2050, virtually the same proportion as today.

One of the key findings in the report is that of the 300 GW of new electricity generating capacity that came on-line in 2008 and 2009, 140 GW was classified as renewable – a combination of wind, biomass, hydro, solar and other technologies. According to the latest European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) market report, approximately 13.5 GW, or 10 percent, of that renewable total was attributable to solar electricity.

After a highly expansive year in 2010, the solar proportion will have increased significantly, but photovoltaics still only accounts for around 0.25% of global electricity generation right now, equivalent to about 50 TWh per year. To meet the UN’s most optimistic scenario would require an extraordinary expansion to around 36,000 TWh – and the IPCC panel’s report does acknowledge that in the majority of its scenarios, the solar share of electricity supply remains below 10 percent.

Japan’s new plan
The UN report was launched as the Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan signaled that the country would scrap its previous plan to expand nuclear energy production in the country following the damage caused by the recent earthquake and tsunami to the Fukushima nuclear power plant on Japan’s Pacific coast, and increasingly look to renewables to meet the shortfall.

“Based on the recent accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), I think it is necessary to discuss the scrap [of] the current Basic Energy Plan, where the ratio of the nuclear energy is expected to be more than 50 percent in 2030,” said Kan in a news conference.

“The past energy policy has regarded nuclear energy and fossil fuels as two major pillars in electricity,” he continued. “With the recent accidents, I think two additional pillars are important. The first additional pillar is to add renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, as well as biomass, to the core energy resources.”

According to International Energy Agency figures, Japan was the world’s third-largest electricity-generating nation in 2007 (after the US and China), producing 1,123 TWh of electricity – of which about 30 percent came from nuclear sources.

The EPIA’s latest report suggests that Japan had an installed PV generating capacity of 3.6 GW at the end of 2010, equivalent to around 4 TWh of annual energy production, or 0.35 percent of the total. The same report forecasts Japan’s PV capacity to increase to about 12 GW by 2015, which would represent more than 1 percent of the country’s total electricity supply.

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