FEATURE - Solar power to challenge dominance of fossil fuels
Author: Michelle Nichols
Yet two billion people in developing countries lack access to modern energy services, while solar power - a possible solution because of its availability anywhere on the globe - accounts for just 0.1 percent of the world's primary energy demand.
"Solar power is all capital costs. What we are struggling with is how to get the capital - how do we get the investment - to these people to give them solar power," BP Solar president and chief executive Harry Shimp told Reuters.
When the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development convenes in Johannesburg on August 26, it will discuss how to deliver clean, modern energy to one third of the world's population and how to encourage the use of renewable energy in the developed world.
"Photovoltaic (solar energy) is the quickest and cheapest solution for supplying electricity to remote rural households in developing nations," Philippe de Renzy-Martin, executive vice president of Shell Solar told Reuters.
"However, progress is slow and government and multi-lateral agencies - who want to fix the problem - don't want to spend the necessary money."
The summit agenda includes proposals to develop and disseminate renewable energy technologies and to increase the market share of renewable energy sources to between five and 10 percent in all countries by 2010.
"Ultimately the world has to move towards renewable power. In 20-25 years the reserves of liquid hydrocarbons are beginning to go down so we have this window of time to convert over to renewables," said BP's Shimp.
COMPETITIVE WITHIN A DECADE
According to industry groups, solar power will become a serious threat to the global dominance of fossil fuel-fired generation within the next two decades as new technologies remove its main obstacle - cost.
The U.S.-based Solar Energy Industries Association said that solar research has brought down prices to a point where the world could expect to see photovoltaic panels competing with natural gas-fired generation within the next five to eight years.
"Certainly within 20 years, if not much sooner, solar power will be as pervasive as any other power generation technology," said the association's executive director Glenn Hamer.
Statistics from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) show that the market for photovoltaic solar energy, the most commonly applied technology that directly converts sunlight into electricity, is growing by 15 percent a year.
Low temperature solar energy - the direct conversion of sunlight into heat used mainly in space heating and hot water production - is increasing by about eight percent annually. The GEF said around 10 million homes now use solar hot water heaters.
Another emerging technology is solar thermal electricity, which uses solar radiation to produce high-temperature heat to generate electricity.
Amazingly, the United Nations' World Energy Assessment said solar thermal power plants covering just one percent of the world's deserts could meet the entire planet's current demands.
SOLAR REDUCES POVERTY
The potential for solar power to reduce poverty by delivering energy is already being realised through the GEF - the largest source of international financial assistance for renewable energy development in developing countries.
The GEF has committed more than US$200 million for projects aimed at creating sustainable markets for solar systems in Africa, Asia and South America. It aims to provide modern energy services to one billion of the world's poor by 2015.
"These systems provide a reliable source of electricity for lighting and a radio or television, and often cost no more than using traditional fuels such as kerosene," GEF chairman and chief executive officer Mohamed El-Ashry said in a statement.
However, Solar Energy International said that in developing countries solar power potential is being hindered by a failure to pass on the true costs of grid power to customers.
"If we had to pay the environmental costs, health costs a