PV seen gaining on gas-fueled electricity

Utility-scale photovoltaic (PV) conversion of solar energy into electricity soon will be competitive with generation fueled by natural gas, predicts energy analyst Leonardo Maugeri.

The cost of PV modules dropped almost 80% during 2000-14, notes Maugeri, a former Eni SPA executive who’s now senior associate at the Belfer Center for Science & International Relations at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The cost has fallen 65% since 2008 and almost 40% in the last 3 years.

“Because the technology and costs of PV power continue to improve each year at rates unequaled by other sources of energy, it is probable that in a few years utility-scale PV will be more competitive than natural gas ones,” Maugeri writes in a July 20 energy briefing.

Total capacity of PV installations worldwide increased to 177 Gw in 2014 from 1.3 Gw in 2000. Maugeri says it might grow by 30% this year and reach 500 Gw by 2020.

Although most efficiency improvements and cost declines have been noted in distributed-power applications, Maugeri says, “it is in the utility-scale PV market that we can perceive the signs of a revolution.”

There, PV technology has advanced strongly in competition with concentrated solar power, the technology based on mirrors and steam turbines once thought to be most applicable to utility-scale generation.

Because of storage limits, the largest PV stations still require back-up by small and medium-size gas-fired plants for dark periods.

But Maugeri sees great potential in the sunny Middle East, especially in countries with rapidly growing demand for electricity. There, solar’s gains will come at the expense of nuclear power. Maugeri says the cost of a nuclear plant is now at least 2.3 times that of a utility-scale PV plant.

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