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IEA: Solar could provide a third of the world's energy by 2060

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A new IEA report taps solar as a promising energy source to meet the world's need and reduce emissions. But there's one major caveat to pulling it off.

A new report released Thursday by the International Energy Agency says solar could provide a third of global energy by 2060. But there's a giant 'if' attached to that rosy projection: The world's lawmakers must adopt a broad range of policies that include incentives for early deployment, subsidizing research and development and removing non-economic barriers such as grid access and permitting.

Most importantly, countries should move away from subsidizing certain solar technologies and instead establish a carbon price, a strategy that will encourage a broader view of the energy transition, Paolo Frankl, the agency's head of renewable energy told Bloomberg.

The IEA report builds off other analyses that have come before it and aims to provide an updated picture of solar technology trends and markets. According to the report, solar energy will be the available and make the most sense in warm and sunny countries -- which is a rather obvious insight. But the population growth figures the IEA included drives home the point.

Sunnier countries, those zones around the equator, will house about 7 billion people or 80 percent of the world's population by 2050 versus 2 billion folks who will live in cold and temperate countries that includes most of Europe, Russia and parts of China and the United States.

The report noted that in most markets solar electricity is not yet able to compete without specific incentives. However, costs have dropped enough that solar thermal electricity and solar photovoltaic electricity are competitive against oil-fueled electricity generation in sunny countries, usually to cover demand peaks, and in many islands, the report said.

Not surprisingly, the report touted the good news story about photovoltaics and its deployment throughout the world. Curiously, the author sees solar thermal electricity as complementing PV, not competing with it.

When it comes to U.S.-based utility-scale projects, that has not been the case.  At least not in 2011. Several U.S. utility-scale projects have made the switch from solar thermal to PV including, Solar Millennium's decision in October to sell its Blythe solar farm and three other projects in its pipeline to solarhybrid. The 2.25 gigawatts worth of projects will be built with solar panels and not concentrated solar power technology as originally envisioned.

Still, the IEA sees a future in solar thermal both in large utility-scale projects and even in smaller applications to support isolated or weak grids.

Photo: Torresol Energy

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure