Trina Solar’s former chief scientist, Dr Pierre Verlinden, says the solar industry needs to achieve much higher growth if the world is to beat climate change.

Verlinden, a 40-year veteran of the PV industry, says the consensus in the scientific community is that to achieve the 2015 Paris Agreement (COP21) target, the world can only afford to emit another 800 gigatons of CO2, after which emissions must be net-zero. The 2015 Paris Agreement set a goal to keep the increase in global average temperatures to well below two degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. For a 1.5°C target, the experts say that only 400 gigatons of CO2 emissions would be allowed from now on.

“This basically means we need to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050, of which about two thirds would be provided by solar PV because of its cost efficiency. The other one third would be provided by wind, geothermal and biomass, which corresponds to about 70 to 80 terawatt (TW) of cumulative PV capacity by mid-century,” says Verlinden.

“At 10-20% annual growth, we will hit an annual production rate of almost 10TW per year and a cumulative 80TW of power generation capacity in 2055, achieving the climate goal. But this growth trend is not good enough. First, we need to accelerate the implementation of renewable energy technologies. Any delay would be dramatic for humanity. Second, the PV industry needs to grow quickly and consistently at 25-30% annually until 2030 instead, to reach and stabilize at an annual production capacity of about 3TW per annum between 2030 and 2050. Governments need to understand that the next 10 years will be decisive.”

He says if growth is allowed to fall to single digit values, then the main PV market will be replacement of PV modules installed 25 years earlier rather than contributing to cumulative growth in solar capacity. 

Verlinden, who recently won the 2019 Becquerel Prize for his ground-breaking research work on high-efficiency solar cells, such as passivated-emitter rear contact (PERC) cells, says protectionism and complacency is a threat to the growth in the adoption of solar energy.

“I think they [local industry and officials] have a valid interest in championing local jobs, but it is important that we do not become short-sighted in our thinking. Fighting global climate change at the global level is much more urgent objective. Think about how many jobs would be created in the PV industry when we reach TW-level scale production of all our established technologies. For three TW of yearly added capacity, we are looking at something like 10 to 30 times our current number of jobs and that is just in the manufacturing,” Verlinden says.

“Many of these manufacturing jobs will end up in the countries that are installing solar, because it will become more cost-effective to manufacture locally than to import from China. As the cost of manufacturing decreases, the cost of shipment becomes significant. Just as importantly, the industry will unleash huge investment in local supply chains, including logistics and EPC [engineering, procurement and construction],” he adds.

Verlinden also argues that today’s technologies are sufficient to carry us through to 2030. But we need to keep lowering the cost of manufacturing and continue to improve efficiency. He says existing technologies such as bi-facial modules, half-cut cells, large wafers and n-type cells with tunnel oxide passivated contact (TOPCon), have reduced the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) and can continue to do so thanks to further economies of scale. He also says tandem cell technology is coming through soon.

“We have reached grid parity in many countries in the world and are continuously pushing further with cell efficiencies approaching almost 30%. But we cannot afford to be complacent. We must ramp up production of our best technologies,” he says.

“To fight climate change, everyone must get involved. Producing the existing volume of electrical energy by renewables is not sufficient. We need to increase the green electricity demand by transforming the energy economy to total electrification. Coordinated electrification of transport and building heating, for instance, are two areas where solar PV can really create outsize benefits in cost and reliability. In many developing countries, like in Africa, we must urgently deploy a solar PV-based distributed generation network before the old fossil fuel scheme, that has no future, takes over the economy,” he adds.  

“What we really need in the energy world, is leadership,” says Verlinden. “We need a war cabinet at the global level to fight climate change.”

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