Why (and Where) is Solar Energy Gaining Popularity?

Why (and Where) is Solar Energy Gaining Popularity?

By Rosa Tortorella
Posted 11 Nov 2015 | 11:00 GMT

In the past decade, solar energy has been by far the fastest growing source of renewable energy. While green energy in European countries such as the United Kingdom and even environmental model Denmark might witness huge budget cuts with the coming year, countries in the Southern hemisphere are rushing to install solar panels and build state of the art solar farms.

Middle East & Africa

A fundamental factor to consider is the price of solar compared to oil in specific regions. For instance, in Middle Eastern countries solar has already become cheaper than oil, because of the area’s immense supply of fossil fuels. The United Arab Emirates are amongst the world’s top oil exporters, producing 3230 thousands of barrels per day. On the other hand, the country is set to host one of the world’s largest solar farms. Not far from Dubai, the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park is expected to reach 3000 MW in the next 15 years. Morocco is also building a world-record concentrated solar power plant that will cover a quarter of the country’s energy needs. Other countries in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) are investing heavily on solar, proving their commitment to fighting climate change. 2014 was particularly eventful, with a dozen new solar project in Jordan alone and a total of 30 in the whole Middle East.

MENA countries have just recently started embracing renewables, significantly later than the rest of the world. The reasons behind this lag are several: political instability, wars, and most importantly the long standing reliance on abundant oil resources have discouraged the consideration of alternative power sources. Oil and gas will continue to be of paramount importance for the MENA countries, but a shift might be in the works. As solar power prices drop and oil goes up, it may become much more convenient for them to solely export oil and use renewables domestically. However the United Arab Emirates, which are leading the MENA’s green revolution, will use natural gas powered turbines as their main electricity generators (accounting for 71% of the total energy portfolio), with solar coming second (15%). Oil will be gradually removed from the mix to be exported.

Solar power is a logical option, because of the region’s high sun exposure and large deserted spaces. Moreover, it would be ideal to power large water-recycling and desalinization plants that these countries need because of the scarcity of water that has historically troubled them. Powering these plants with solar energy instead of fossil fuels would significantly reduce carbon emissions and opportunity costs. Moreover, the recent population and economic growth has increased demand for electricity, which is an issue especially for oil-importing countries like Morocco that would greatly benefit from new and renewable sources. Morocco has chosen to install wind, solar and hydro plants to eventually become an exporter of renewables. This remarkable feat will not be easy to accomplish: the country has a low GDP and will have to rely on loans from international organizations. At the moment, one of the largest CSP plants in the world is being built in Morocco to kickstart the country’s energy agenda.

For the past four years, the Kalahari desert in South Africa has been the playground of a team of developers that claim to be working with the most efficient solar power system ever created. Massive, 100m2 rotating mirrors have been installed in the Northern Cape region and manage to convert 34% of the sunlight they receive into electricity. A remarkable feat, considering that solar panels currently on the market hardly reach a 20% level of solar efficiency. The power generated by one solar dish would be enough to power more than 20 houses a year.


Solar energy is also gaining popularity in developing countries because of their infrastructural configuration, with houses scattered in remote areas and low access to electricity. The rising need for energy brought by economic growth has led people in these areas to consider solar energy as a viable option, since it can allow for total independence from the grid. Rural India has been helped by development organizations that brought cheap solar systems to millions of citizens who previously had no electricity at all. This was the product of careful calculations on how much the poorer spend on energy, which ends up being more than the average, thus making solar energy an equal or cheaper option than the traditional ones. Meanwhile, two of the planet’s worst polluters – China and the aforementioned India – are taking big steps towards the adoption of renewables. India has launched large scale tree-planting plans and started powering its airports with solar farms. China’s solar panels companies are world leaders thanks to their highly competitive prices, and now own 70% of the world’s market. Even though most of the production is meant for exportation, domestic demand has risen with the national version of the Feed in Tariff.

Latin America

The medal for fastest growing market for solar energy recently went to Latin America: in the past two years, its solar power has tripled. Twice. It does sound logical if you consider that the continent has some of the regions with the best solar expositions in the world. Moreover, in all countries with an underdeveloped energy infrastructure, solar has fewer cheap competitors and can be easier to introduce. Sunnier countries are advantaged, since their costs are undoubtedly lower, but solar energy costs are dropping so fast that less fortunate areas don’t need to worry. Another interesting fact is that solar energy in areas like Latin America is not subsidized, which actually attracts developers who benefit from not being dependent on the stability of government policies. Even though the spectacular growth is being led by the more forward-looking countries like Chile, it would be fair to predict that neighboring nations will be watching and learning.

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Rosa Tortorella is a contributor for UK-based websites Greenmatch and GreenJournal, where she writes about the latest news and technologies in the fields of green energy and sustainability. She's an International Economics graduate, originally from Italy and now based in Denmark.