Do self-sufficiency, low carbon, competitiveness and abundance add up to a winning recipe for solar?

Unlimited, low-carbon and found everywhere, sunlight is shaping up to be the energy source of the second half of the 21st century. Solar production costs are now quite competitive. At the same, solar power also helps user countries become energy self-sufficient and addresses public concerns. Marc de Lataillade, vice president, Solar at Total, believes all the prerequisites are in place for solar to play a leading role in the global energy mix.

Another 30,000 panels every hour

The face of the global energy industry is changing. One notable shift is the growth of renewables, which, according to the IRENA1 annual report published in the spring of 2017, had a stellar year in 2016, installing more than 160 gigawatts (GW) of new capacity worldwide2.

Even more remarkable is that, for the first time in 2013, more additional solar than wind power capacity was installed over the year. The totals were 75 new gigawatts commissioned in 2016, versus 54 gigawatts for wind power.

Thanks to steep declines in its production costs, mainly upstream3, solar power is slowly but surely carving out a choice spot for itself in the planet's renewable capacity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), it should make up 13 percent of the global power mix in 2040, as another 30,000 solar panels are installed worldwide each hour between now and 2021.

200,000 solar panels occupying 300 hectares and producing 86 MW — the Prieska solar power plant supplies affordable, reliable, clean energy to South Africans.

Three technologies to capture an infinite supply

Three technologies4 are used to capture this unlimited energy source5.

Low-temperature solar thermal power accounts for 70.7 percent of world production. It uses the sun's rays to produce heat directly at less than 100 degrees Celsius for housing, industry and the service sector. Capacity doubled between 2007 and 2012, to 233 gigawatts-thermal (GWth).

Photovoltaic solar power — 28.6 percent of global production — converts solar radiation to power directly. Total capacity soared from 9.9 GW in 2007 to 318 GW in 2016. Between 1980 and 2016, the cost of manufacturing a photovoltaic panel plummeted from 24 euros per watt to less than 0.5 euros per watt.

Concentrated solar power (CSP) — also known as thermodynamic solar — produces a tiny 0.7 percent. It concentrates the sun's energy using towers, Fresnel reflectors or parabolic trough collectors to generate power. At end-2013, roughly 70 such power plants, 48 of them in Spain, supplied 3.12 gigawatts in nine countries in the world.

These figures need to be kept in perspective: In 2015, solar energy represented only 1 percent of the global energy mix and produced 257 TWh6. So a strong push will be needed to make good on the IEA's predictions.

Total across the photovoltaic solar chain

Total wants to be part of that push. Marc de Lataillade, Total's vice president, Solar, points out that the company has "solid ambitions in renewable energies and thus solar, aiming to have low-carbon energies account for 20 percent of its portfolio 20 years from now."

It's one reason Total acquired an interest in 2011 in SunPower, a North American company that is a leader in its market and makes the world's best-performing solar panels, with a conversion efficiency of 24.1 percent. Moreover, "Total wants to accelerate its solar project development activity internationally," says Marc de Lataillade. "With Total Solar, we want to be more active and operate in the market's main segments. That includes utility-scale solar plants connected to the grid, currently the biggest chunk of the market, as well as grid-connected or off-grid ground-mounted and rooftop systems for the industrial and commercial segment. The latter segment strikes us as especially promising as businesses, encouraged by lower costs, get interested in "greening" their power production. With our program to bring solar to Total's sites, including our 5,000 service stations, we're proving by example that it's feasible and cost-effective." In other words, Total aims to be integrated across the solar value chain, doing everything from manufacturing solar panels to managing utility-scale power plants and installing rooftop systems on homes and industrial and commercial buildings. All on a global scale.

Is Africa the land of opportunity for solar?

Nearly 1.5 billion people currently lack access to affordable, reliable power. And most of them live in Africa, which has the highest solar resource in the world. Solar power can therefore play a key role in energy access there. But it isn't the only factor that suggests the continent will be a growth market.

For one thing, it currently has a low electrification rate, especially in light of a demographic and economic spurt "that creates real forward momentum" according to Total's vice president, Solar. He adds that: "The African power market will grow twice as fast as the global market."

"African governments and decision makers are keenly interested in solar power. Solar supports a form of energy self-sufficiency, it's low-carbon and fast to set up, and its costs are increasingly competitive with other energy sources."

Now all that's needed is an acceptable cost per megawatt-hour. Power generated in Africa often still costs more than $100 per megawatt-hour. Bringing that down will require controlling the cost of building production units — panels alone account for 30 percent of the physical investment for the entire system — cheaper financing and regulations that support seamless integration into the existing grid. "Today there are no technological reasons stopping us from building a solar power production unit," says Marc de Lataillade. "However, each project is different and we have to conduct a detailed study beforehand to find out the state of the existing grid and applicable regulations, to accurately size our solution. Some grids lack the capacity to support the addition of an intermittent energy source. We have to figure out where we fit in and provide hybrid or storage solutions where necessary." In that regard, what makes solar attractive is that it's a distributed energy source, easy to locate near consumers.

It works well in projects involving national grids, nano units or micro-grids — village or local production units — and multiple access to energy initiatives such as "pay-as-you-go" that are revolutionizing power usage. "Africa will very likely use the same recipes for distributed renewables that it did for telephones and banking — rapid technological leapfrogging," says the Total senior manager. "It's up to us to provide the technical and commercial solutions that go with it."

Countries such as South Africa and Morocco have gone that route by opting for structured, phased programs, planning installations that will have to guarantee a megawatt-per-hour price currently set at under $60. "The solutions we can offer depend pretty heavily on existing regulations. The equation we have to crack for solar to grow rapidly is how to encourage sizeable investments — an installed megawatt costs around $1 million in capital expenditure. That means guaranteeing all stakeholders, developers and investors long-term returns over a period of around 25 years," says Marc de Lataillade.

There is no off-the-shelf solution. Each case is unique and quite often local regulations have to change to put projects on a permanent footing and design them for a wide variety of energy sources. "Solar alone won't solve the challenge of energy in Africa," warns Marc de Lataillade, who thinks that "sources working in partnership will be the answer. Local authorities will have to put together the right mix. One in which solar offers many economic, political and social advantages, while meeting strong public demand for more sustainable energy production and use. Let's not forget that solar is an infinite resource," he says in conclusion.

1 The International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization that supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future, and serves as the principal platform for international cooperation.

2 Bloomberg New Energy Finance cites 150 gigawatts.

3 According to BNEF, after falling 50% between 2010 and 2015, the price of photovoltaic panels decreased another 15% in 2016, to around $0.60 a watt in the global market.

4 Source: CNRS News.

5 Sunlight supplies some 400,000 zettawatts (ZW) of energy a second, or 145,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 watts (145.6 quadrillion watts) each year.

6 Source: Enerdata.

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