By 2020, the global solar market is predicted to reach $137 billion, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan. Experts have also claimed that by 2050, solar power could account for 25 percent of the world's energy supply.
Cédric Baudru, Director of Sales for SPX Cooling Technologies Belgium, has worked in various solar markets all over the world and has been following two major trends that might help bring such a prediction to realization--trends that involve both the renewable potential and the financial realities of solar power technology.
“The first trend is that solar is being highly promoted as a renewable energy. Once the solar power plant is installed, the fuel is for free. The windmill is the competitor of the solar plant, because it can be working at night—although recent solar plant technologies can off set this gap by way of thermal storage. But in a desert area, like in Saudi Arabia, you can have sun every day, and you won't have wind every day. You can achieve more stability with sun than with wind," Baudru points out.
Although wind turbines and windmills are also promoted for the creation of renewable energy, neighboring communities and surrounding cities are making cases for the interference caused by the windmills, which, Baudru notes, could be seen as a step back for the initiative of wind energy.
“But I don't expect this will happen with solar," Baudru adds. As solar plants are mostly relegated to desert regions, the impact on surrounding communities is more limited.
Another trend Baudru has noticed is that solar is closely linked to the oil barrel price. “You can see clearly that when the price of oil is high, solar projects are well promoted. And when oil is low, solar is not promoted as much. Of course, I'm not happy with that." Baudru says. Not surprisingly, the investment costs to install a solar plant are high, about four times the cost of a installing a gas-powered plant of similar capacity. But the ROI—that's invaluable.
So far, Baudru finds that the biggest solar markets in the world are the US and Saudi Arabia, but says that the Middle East region in general is growing rapidly, particularly Kuwait and Oman. Chile, with its strong development of photovoltaics, also appears to be emerging as a big player in the global solar market. In certain countries, like Morocco, Spain and South Africa, government policies are also helping to boost solar, with some governments offering incentives, like purchasing electricity to attract investors and developers. The Morocco Solar Plan, for example, is a push by the government to attract private investors for its goal of installing 2,000 MW of solar capacity by 2020 (14 percent of the country's electricity supply) with an estimated investment of $9 billion.
“This has been happening since the beginning," Baudru says. “The plant is expensive, the investment is big. So everybody is in admiration of the solar technologies but not ready to invest. The government push is what attracts investors. But the rise of investors in a country also depends on the electricity price and if the solar project is private or from the government."
For solar solutions, Baudru says that SPX offers wet cooling towers and also dry cooling technology (the latter accounts for 90 to 95 percent of solar projects, since solar plants are mostly placed in arid locations, except in Spain) for a large range of projects “that require very special equipment to be installed in solar power plants. Or, we offer hybrid solutions that combine the use of water and air to condense the steam after the turbine. But it is mainly in plant operation--this is how we differentiate ourselves from competition. We ensure high performance and low maintenance, and the market is very limited. Sometime we are driving the market—for example with the SPX patented Natural Draft Condense, and with Parabolic Trough, Central Tower and Fresnel technology. There is a continuous momentum to give the projects some added value," Baudru explains.
SPX also has its hand in three particular segments of the solar market that are being favored by experts: concentrated solar, solar with storage and distributed solar. SPX Cooling solutions are independent from the technology of the solar plant and are employed after the solar energy has already been used to generate electricity.
Baudru has watched the maturity of solar technology drastically evolve over the past five years—and this also means that the cost of investing in solar technology is also slowly dropping. All that points to a bright future for solar power.