The sun could be the world's leading electricity source by mid-century with the amount of new photovoltaic (PV) panel installations soaring at 100MW daily, according to a pair of new reports.
The reports, issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA), stated that by 2050, PV panels could produce 16% of the world's electricity, while solar thermal electricity (STE) is on track to produce 11%. Solar thermal electricity is created by concentrating the sun's rays to produce steam, which then turns a turbine.
Photovoltaic panels capable of producing 137 billion watts (gigawatts) of power have been installed worldwide since the end of 2013, according to the IEA, a Paris-based agency that advises on global energy consumption.
Perhaps just as important, solar power could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 6 billion tons over the next four decades, the reports state.
Rooftop solar panels will account for half of the world's solar PV installations because as a distributed energy source, the technology is "unbeatable," the report said.
In the U.S., solar power capacity for producing electricity has grown six-fold since 2010, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a federal agency that provides information about the nation's energy production across all markets.
Meanwhile, the IEA's report indicates the cost of solar power worldwide is expected to drop to four cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) by 2050. In the U.S., electricity costs about 13 cents per kilowatt hour for residential power and seven cents for industrial power.
IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven stressed in a statement that her agency's two reports do not represent a forecast. As with other IEA technology roadmaps, they detail the expected technology improvement targets and the policy actions required to achieve those goals by 2050.
However, van der Hoeven noted that the cost of solar system hardware is rapidly declining.
"The rapid cost decrease of photovoltaic modules and systems in the last few years has opened new perspectives for using solar energy as a major source of electricity in the coming years and decades," she said. "However, both technologies are very capital intensive: almost all expenditures are made upfront. Lowering the cost of capital is thus of primary importance for achieving the vision in these roadmaps."
Rooftop solar panel installations could cut utility profits by 15% or more over the next eight years, according to the federally funded report (download PDF) that studied two prototypical U.S. utilities -- one in the Southwest and the other in the Northeast.
The report, from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy under the U.S. Department of Energy, predicts that rooftop solar panel installations will grow from 0.2% market penetration today to 10% by 2022.
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