Experts from across the globe are rallying to support the ongoing expansion of PV manufacturing and deployment as a crucial step in achieving global decarbonization goals by 2050. They argue that underestimating the growth potential of PV technology while awaiting agreement on alternative energy solutions or breakthrough technological advancements is no longer a viable approach. This unanimous decision was reached at the 3rd Terawatt Workshop held last year, which highlighted the growing need for large-scale PV installations to facilitate electrification and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As the global acceptance of PV technology continues to rise, experts now estimate that a minimum of 75 terawatts of PV capacity will be necessary by 2050 to reach global decarbonization targets. The workshop, which was spearheaded by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy in Germany, and Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, brought together leaders from various sectors, including PV, grid integration, analytics, and energy storage.
The initial meeting in 2016 discussed the goal of achieving 3 terawatts of PV capacity by 2030, which increased to approximately 10 TW by 2030 and triple that amount by 2050 in the 2018 meeting. Workshop participants had accurately forecasted that PV-generated electricity would reach 1 TW globally within five years, a milestone achieved last year. Nancy Haegel, director of the National Center for Photovoltaics at NREL, acknowledges the significant progress made, but emphasizes the need for ongoing efforts and accelerated progress. The journal Science recently published an article authored by Haegel and 41 other contributors from 15 countries, titled “Photovoltaics at Multi-Terawatt Scale: Waiting Is Not an Option.” NREL’s director, Martin Keller, stressed the importance of setting ambitious, achievable goals that make a significant impact. He expressed confidence in the potential of PV solar energy to achieve even more as innovation and urgency continue to drive progress. Although solar radiation can easily supply the Earth’s energy needs, only a small fraction is currently harnessed. From 2010 to 2022, the proportion of global electricity provided by PV increased from practically nothing to 4-5%.
The workshop report warned that the opportunity to address greenhouse gas emissions and meet future energy demands at scale is rapidly diminishing. PV technology is one of the few immediately viable alternatives to fossil fuels. The authors of the report advised that aiming for the 75-terawatt target will require considerable efforts from both PV manufacturers and the scientific community. This includes reducing the amount of silver used in silicon solar panels, sustaining a 25% annual growth rate in the PV industry, and continuously innovating to enhance material sustainability and minimize environmental impact. Workshop attendees also recommended that solar technology be re-engineered for ecodesign and circularity. However, they acknowledged that recycling materials is not currently an economically feasible solution to meet the material demands over the next two decades. Despite the significant challenge, the 75-terawatt target is an achievable path forward. The report concludes that recent progress and current trends indicate that this goal is well within reach. NREL, the U.S. Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development, is managed by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy LLC.