Here’s some food for thought: in a single hour, the amount of power from the sun that hits the Earth is more than what the entire world consumes in a year1. It’s no wonder that solar energy is becoming so prevalent. Let’s take you through some fascinating milestones that have been achieved by adopting this once untapped resource, and what we think that means for future demand for copper, a key metal in the solar energy revolution.
The future of solar energy is closer than you may think. Here is Tesla’s “solar city”:
Who are the pioneers of solar power in the world today?
While a lot of countries have been jumping into the “solar race”, we’ve narrowed our list down to the top three countries who are considered the pioneers of solar power today. And it should be no surprise that one of them is Japan. Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the country has been driven to approach solar power as a main source of power for the near future. They have set targets for 28 GW and 53 GW for 2020 and 2030, respectively.
There’s also the United States; with over 60 gigawatts (GW) of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity installed, the U.S. has harnessed enough solar energy to power nearly one in every 11 homes in America.2 Isn’t that an impressive number? Shockingly, that still places them as the ‘runner-up’ for the generational race of achieving solar power worldwide.
Because our current solar giant is China. Taking its place as the world leader in solar energy, China had installed solar power stations totalling 174 GW by 2018.3
How did China become the leader in solar energy?
In the late 1990s, Germany found itself overwhelmed by an overflowing demand for solar panels as a response to a government incentive program to promote rooftops that used this technology. Germany wanted to be a leader in solar energy, so they implemented a program where they provided the capital, technology and experts to entice China into making solar panels to meet the German demand.
However, some of the pioneering companies involved realised solar energy was a great source of income and started production of the manufacturing side of solar panels themselves. In time, the demand for solar panel exports spread to Spain and Italy, whose governments started their own solar incentives. This led to China hiring more and more solar experts, and an increase in shopping for machinery and polysilicon supplies just so they could meet the expected surge of orders for solar panels.
China began buying solar companies, which invited other companies to move to China, with the incentive that they would find cheap and skilled labour. By building the world’s largest solar manufacturing industry, China established itself as a price leader in most aspects of the world’s market – beginning with cheaper solar panels. And that is how China helped create a worldwide glut. There were about two panels being churned out for everyone ordered by an overseas customer.
So, China may be taking the big bucks home… but they’re still sharing the fruits of the solar panel industry. Without the push from China, we couldn’t have dramatically lowered solar module prices. In addition, solar panels and their demand are responsible for the sheer number of jobs being created worldwide due to this industry. And without the lowered prices, 250,000 American jobs in the solar panel assembly, installation and maintenance business would be non-existent.
Tech giants take the lead
While it’s great to see countries in different parts of the world embracing this cleaner technology, it’s really the individual companies in the technology industry that are taking this initiative to the next level. Companies are opting to use solar energy for different reasons; to power their operations, to meet environmental goals, or simply to save money.
The 2018 Solar Means Business reports states “As the solar options available to U.S. businesses have expanded, so too has the number of companies choosing solar as their preferred energy source. From rooftop systems for local hardware stores, to solar parking canopies supporting a corporate headquarters, to large solar installations powering data centers, the solar installations are as diverse and varied as the companies themselves.
The maps below show every commercial solar installation tracked in their 2018 report, with the size of each bubble corresponding with the system’s size:
Other companies, like Tesla, are developing the technology needed to store solar energy more efficiently. The company has created a microgrid on the island of Ta’u, consisting of over 5000 solar panels and 60 Powerpack systems, capable of powering 100% of the island on clean energy for three full days without sun. As Tesla’s environmental report from 2019 states: “Today, instead of burning almost 110K gallons of diesel per year, paying for rising fuel and related transportation costs and having to face negative health impacts, nearly 900 residents of Ta’u benefit from clean, affordable and reliable energy year-round.” 4
Another American company making big progress adopting solar energy is Target. In 2017, Target kicked off its solar-storage project at its store in Kailua-Kona, on the big island of Hawaii’s east coast. There, it installed a 910-kilowatt solar system that included a 250-kilowatt energy storage component. And they have no plans of stopping; by the end of 2019, Target expected to install rooftop solar systems on more than 500 store locations. By 2030, the company plans to meet 100% of its energy needs from renewable sources.5
Google’s taken things one step further. In 2017, they reached 100% renewable energy for their global operations — including both their data centers and offices. Here is an extract from their blog post published in September 2019:
“In 2017, we became the first company of our size to match our entire annual electricity consumption with renewable energy (and then we did it again in 2018). As a result, we became the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world.”
They made the biggest corporate purchase of renewable energy ever known through a package of agreements including 18 new energy deals. This increased Google’s wind and solar portfolio by more than 40%, effectively increasing their capacity to a million solar rooftops. Their overall plan is to have a carbon-free portfolio that would be able to power entire countries as big as Lithuania or Uruguay, or as populated as Washington D.C.
The takeaway? By letting large corporations know that we care about their environmental sustainability efforts, we are promoting a faster development in these green technologies. In fact, they are becoming cheaper and hence more accessible too. In the last 30 years, solar panel costs have fallen 99%, from $77 per watt in 1977 to only $0.39 per watt in 2017. As this energy source reaches more of us in the near future, we will need increasing amounts of the metals that make this technology possible, one of which is copper: