Energy Transition

5 unexpected places in the world for solar power generation

Solar power

Solar power now accounts for almost a third of global renewable energy capacity. Image: Unsplash/American Public Power Association

Stefan Ellerbeck
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Decarbonizing Energy

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  • Solar power now accounts for almost a third of global renewable energy capacity, according to IRENA.
  • From golf courses to outer space, an increasing array of innovative sites are being used to build solar power facilities.
  • But experts say that much more needs to be done to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

With governments around the world pledging to reach net-zero emission targets in the decades to come, the race is on to substantially increase renewable energy capacity.

Many countries in Europe are also scrambling to use green power to help wean themselves off Russian fossil fuel imports following the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Germany is particularly exposed and is accelerating its efforts to go greener.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

An infographic showing wind and solar as a percentage of total electricity generation in selected countries
Germany is accelerating its green energy transition. Image: Statista

Solar power now accounts for almost a third of global renewable energy capacity, Forbes reports. And Germany is one country leading the charge.

A rapidly-built solar power plant situated on a quarry lake in the west of the country is expected to produce 3 megawatts of power – equivalent to an average onshore wind turbine. The facility on Lake Silbersee in Haltern am See comprises 5,800 modules on 360 floating elements.

It’s estimated that Germany could house around 20 gigawatts of solar energy on water – enough to keep the lights on in around 15 million homes. Floating systems are also regarded as sustainable and are quicker to install.

Lakes are arguably one of the more likely venues for solar panels. But they are not the only options. Here, we list some of the world’s more unusual solar panel spots.

1. Solar islands

Floating solar panels have been constructed off an island in the Maldives to generate electricity for a tourist resort. Generating a modest 680 kilowatts, it is so far one of the largest of its kind in the sea. Unlike lakes, the ocean presents challenges such as strong waves and salt water which can attack and erode the panels.

2. Solar roads

Solar technology is being experimented with on roads and pavements. A 70-metre ‘solar road’ bike path near Amsterdam in the Netherlands is lined with photovoltaic (PV) cells covered with tempered glass. In the first six months it generated 3,000 kilowatts of energy, enough to provide one person with enough electricity for a year.

3. Abandoned golf courses

With golf losing popularity in some parts of the world, solar power developers have been given the perfect environment to install large-scale power plants. Disused golf courses provide plenty of land, high sun exposure and a low concentration of trees.

4. Solar carports

In the United States, solar carports have been springing up. Utilizing the canopies covering the parked cars, these solar installations not only generate renewable energy but they also reduce the urban heat island effect, helping to cool cities. Additionally, of course, they can help recharge parked electric vehicles.

5. The race for space

Solar power satellites in geostationary orbit would "harvest sunlight on a permanent 24/7 basis then convert it into low-power density microwaves to safely transmit down to receiver stations on Earth", it says.

"The idea of space-based solar power is no longer science fiction," ESA scientist Dr Sanjay Vijendran told the BBC. "The potential is there, and we now need to really understand the technological path before a decision can be made to go ahead with trying to build something in space."

Meanwhile, the UK government is said to be considering building a massive solar power station in space – which would beam renewable energy back to Earth. The estimated price tag is an eye-watering $20 billion. With global energy needs predicted to increase by nearly 50% by 2050, space-based solar power could significantly help meet demand as well as limit global warming.

How bright is a solar-powered future?

As capital costs come down, the use of solar energy is going up. It accounts for 28% of the global renewable energy capacity, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Wind power currently makes up 27% of green energy potential. Solar energy grew by 19% last year, with wind growing by 13%. Hydropower still makes up the lion’s share of renewable energy generation, but its share is now down to 40% and is expected to fall in the coming years.

A chart showing cumulative installed solar PV capacity worldwide from 2000 to 2020
Rise in global solar energy capacity 2000-2020. Image: Statista
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Solar power generation still has room for improvement

However, there is still a long way to go before solar and other renewable energy sources really make a difference. “Despite the encouraging global trend,” IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera told Forbes, “the energy transition is far from being fast or widespread enough to avert the dire consequences of climate change”.

There are also other hurdles in the way of a greener future. In the US, public opposition to solar power projects has stalled some of them and is threatening the progress of the Biden administration’s green agenda.

The World Economic Forum estimates that around 50% of the technologies needed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 are still in development and not yet available on the market.

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