20 February 2012
2011 has been a record year for photovoltaics. 24GW of solar power have been installed worldwide, more than ever before. As ironic as it is, the primary drivers in the PV market are countries with relatively modest sunshine. Europe, not exactly known as the world’s sunniest hot spot, is home to 75% of the world’s PV systems (roughly 30GW).
With about the same amount of sunshine as Alaska, Germany is hands-down the most impressive figure in the PV landscape: in December of last year alone, the country installed 3GW of modules, bringing its total capacity up to 25 GW and therewith owning the majority of PV systems in the world.
Latin America and the Caribbean are located in the Sunbelt—regions with some of the best conditions for solar in the world. Graphic © New Jersey Institute of Technology
Latin American and Caribbean promise
When regions that are actually predestined by nature to “grow” solar energy deploy their most abundant indigenous resource in full scale, it’ll be an entirely new era for the economies and workforce development of these countries. Areas with enormous promise are Latin America and the Caribbean. With high costs of conventional power production (just as an example: 33 cents/kW in many Brazilian cities and on Caribbean islands), an often outdated or unreliable grid infrastructure, and lots of remote areas with the need for stable electricity, these countries have much to gain—financially, economically, and even socially from the power of the sun. The currently 56MW that are installed primarily in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina are only a glimpse of what the powerhouse in the southern hemisphere has in store.
Although over 92% of South Americans have access to electricity, the infrastructure and service is often poor at best. Especially during peak load, a little “solar kick-in” produced by small to mid-sized installations will do wonders to avoid frequent power blackouts.
Currently, the majority of installations are still of the off-grid type. Providing businesses and small factories in remote areas with a constant source of power, backed by batteries is a prime application. Enabling isolated villages and industries that are underserved by the existing grid to thrive with solar electricity is one of the most powerful developments imaginable: it can help entrepreneurs to thrive; it can enable sustainable living conditions for municipalities, and bring about great social developments. Think about schools and libraries that can stay lit or hospitals that safely operate 24/7.
Governments are also sensing the tremendous economic potential of solar, especially because utilities are largely state-owned and big-scale solar deployment (even if through foreign investment) could put money into government pockets and reduce the dependency from costly foreign fuel imports. Recently, Mexico and Chile started allowing grid-connected systems, which is indicative of the increase in incentives and state programs cropping up all across the continent, albeit sporadic.
The scattered and inconsistent policy support for solar is still one of the greatest hurdles for full-swing solar deployment in Latin America. With a level playing field among state-supported conventional energy options still a good way out, education on solar technology has become a key factor in advancing the cause and improving public perception. In Brazil, the majority of grid-connected PV can be found at university test labs as the core piece of studies on sustainability and environmental benefits. Especially Brazil with its buzzing economy and increasing demand for electricity has a lot at stake when it comes to a sensible energy portfolio: the green lungs of the Amazonas purify about a third of the world’s CO2-emissions, not a system you want to upset more than already done.
At present PV-suppliers are still struggling a good bit with the logistics of a market that runs on wildly different voltages and often unclear codes and regulations. Especially for micro-inverter manufacturers, it might take some innovative technology adjustment to accommodate these challenges. On the other side of the distribution, the grid infrastructure will have to be updated and extended in many places to allow for additional systems feeding power into the grid—a step that several of the up-and-coming economies with growing populations like Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico already face.
185kw solar PV installation in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Caribbean Renewable Technologies
Education and training needs
As with any developing market, there are two other core pieces of solar deployment that will have to be addressed before we can we expect any ‘real action’ and a full scale distribution system can establish itself: workforce and finance. Currently we see a host of Latin American electricians, construction companies, even land developers and architects coming to the United States to obtain comprehensive, quality PV-training and knowledge. Educational opportunities for more integrators, engineers, and technicians will be crucial to grow the market to a sustainable size and should be more widely available.
Last but not least
With financing, education, legislation, and distribution pieces in place, we will see a true Solar Eldorado taking shape.
Solar development everywhere is largely aided by a sound financing market that caters to residential, commercial, and industrial scale end users and their needs. As the Latin American arena is certainly not an exception, lease and loan programs provided by governments or private lenders will be an essential backbone to success.
With financing, education, legislation, and distribution pieces in place, we will see a true Solar Eldorado taking shape with nearly unlimited growth potential. Following Chile’s lead, more and more Latin American countries are Iikely to introduce renewable energy quotas into their energy mix and embrace one or multiple forms of clean energy as their economies grow and demand for new sources of electricity rises. A moderate forecast estimates 13GW of solar by 2020 for Latin America and 48GW by 2030. Others are estimating 25GW and 96GW respectively to be more accurate. No matter how one slices it--one of the largest markets in the world.
About the Author
Sylvia Minton heads the Public Policy Chair of the Georgia Solar Energy Association and is Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs for MAGE SOLAR and a member of the board of directors of the Mage Solar Academy in Dublin, Georgia, US.
For more on the solar industry in Latin America, see the Solar Novus Today article "Solar in Latin America".