The world rush into solar energy is well under way.
BP Solar, BP being the company once known as "British Petroleum," but now rebranded as "Beyond Petroleum," is a world leader in solar PV manufacture and production.
The growth rate of solar energy was 45% last year, the highest growth in a decade.
Let's look at this new capacity and do some calculations.
First let's quote some tidbits from the website:
The trend of rapid growth in PV capacity gained momentum in 2004, the most recent year for which data are available. A growth rate of 45% in 2004 was the highest in more than a decade. The ten-year average annual growth rate was 32%. As with wind, installed PV capacity has increased dramatically over the last decade. The increase was more than 15 fold, albeit from a much lower base than wind capacity. Solar energy is heavily subsidized as well.
Installed capacity in the IEA Photovoltaic Power System Programme (PVPS) member countries increased by 800 MW to reach almost 2,600 MW at the end of 2004. 94% of this growth was in Germany, Japan and in the US. Global installed capacity increased on average by 32% per year over the past decade. Effective average capacity utilization in solar energy for power generation is approximately 20%.
The growth in German installed capacity has been especially dramatic, rising by an average of more than 50% annually over the past decade. Total installed capacity reached 794 MW at the end of 2004. Japanese average annual growth over this period was 43%. With a 44% market share and 1,132 MW of installed PV capacity Japan continues to lead the world in terms of solar power generating capacity.
Not coincidentally, Japan, Germany and the US are the countries that have the largest programmes in terms of government support to the PV industry. In Japan government rebates under an 11-year solar development programme now exceed US$ 1.5 billion and in Germany, producers of solar energy receive a subsidy of over EUR 40/MWh. Even in Southern California with abundant sun resource, at least a US$ 20/MWh subsidy is needed to make sun energy competitive. Not accidentally do the three countries with the largest government support programmes also house the biggest manufacturers.
Thus the Japanese subsidy is $1.5 billion dollars.
OK, let's calculate.
Capacity utilization may be thought of as the amount of time, in percentage terms, that a plant may be thought of as producing its full output. Thus a 1000 MWe power plant of any type that has 90% capacity utilization is the equivalent of a 900 MWe power plant running flat out 100% of the time.
Thus a solar plant rated at 1,100 MWe, the entire capacity of Japan more or less, and operating at the (stated) utilization of 20% would produce the amount of energy equivalent to a 200 MWe plant of another type.
In fact, 1100MWe is the equivalent of a fairly typical nuclear plant. (The Japanese nuclear plants that have come on line in the last few years have been 1600 MWe each, roughly.) Since a nuclear plant typically operates at 90% capacity loading, each nuclear plant produces more than 5 times much energy as the entire nation of Japan produces from solar PV cells, according to BP.
Thus, given the $1.5 billion (US) subsidy, a solar installation producing as much energy as a single nuclear plant would require a subsidy (subsidy, not cost) of $7.5 billion dollars to match the nuclear plant in raw energy output, if the nuclear plant operates close to nameplate capacity. (Most nuclear plants in fact do operate close to name plate capacity.)
Solar plants and nuclear plants do different things, so we should be careful with this comparison but... to produce as much energy as Japan produces by nuclear (with 55 nuclear power plants) we can estimate the cost as being about $420 billion dollars, subsidy only.