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Solar installations are growing faster than people realize, says panel maker

  • Solar power is expected to grow exponentially as an important source to meet the world's energy needs, according to the CEO of panel maker REC
  • Steve O'Neil told CNBC that the cost of producing solar energy will also go down due to improvements in the technology
  • Floating solar panels are going to be an important part of the future in converting sunlight into energy, he said

Solar power is growing exponentially as a key source to meet the world's energy needs, the chief executive of a panel maker told CNBC on Friday.

Steve O'Neil, CEO at Norway-headquartered firm REC, said that was likely due to the falling cost of solar energy as a result of technological developments.

"Solar is growing exponentially is what I don't think people realize," O'Neil told CNBC at the sidelines of the Singapore Summit. "Every two years, the installation rates are doubling and so it's happening around the world now very quickly."

That was despite the fact, he said, that currently 2 percent at most of the world's electricity is supplied by converting sunlight into energy. Therefore, there's likely greater room for solar energy penetration in the market.

Reports earlier this year said the total amount of solar power added globally soared by about 50 percent in 2016 due to the United States and China. Worldwide, the solar power capacity is at 305 gigawatts, up from about 50 gigawatts in 2010.

Part of the increased adoption of solar is likely due to a reduction in the cost of converting sunlight into usable energy. Prices are expected to fall further due to scaling and cost improvement, according to O'Neil.

"There's no doubt that costs are going to continue to come down," he said. "Now, around the world, solar energy costs about 8 cents a kilowatt hour. That's down 70 percent since 2010, and those costs are going to continue to come down as we develop the technology."

Moreover, he said, improved storage makes it possible to use solar energy even when the sky is cloudy or overcast.

Technicians installing photovoltaic PV solar panels.
Lester Lefkowitz | Getty Images
Technicians installing photovoltaic PV solar panels.

REC manufactures its solar panels in Singapore and Norway, and O'Neil said the company is nearing the production of its 30 millionth panel this year.

One of the newer developing areas that REC is looking at are floating solar panels.

"We've done several megawatts-scale installations," he said. "We have floating solar here in Singapore, in Thailand and Japan."

Last year, Singapore launched what it claimed was the world's largest floating solar photovoltaic cell test-bed in one of its reservoirs to study the performance and cost-effectiveness of the technology, according to local media.

O'Neil said the venture is an exciting prospect because it "protects the water resources on reservoirs" and it also allows energy generation on a surface area that would "otherwise not be productive." The water also keeps the solar panels cool, which is necessary for optimal energy production, he said.

Floating solar panels will play an important part in the future of converting sunlight into energy, according to O'Neil.

"Solar can be deployed anywhere. It's fully scalable, it's quick to deploy. You can do it on a rooftop, you can do it on ground, on water, just one of the advantages of solar."