How much photovoltaics (PV) would be needed to power the world sustainably?

The study is a collaborative effort of an international team of solar energy experts from Aalto University of Finland, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and SMART (Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology). It analyses the intersection of two dominant trends in the energy sector during the 21st century: the impetus to decarbonise the energy sector to mitigate dangerous anthropogenic climate change and the increased economic prosperity in tropical countries which makes for a higher demand for cooling than heating.

More specifically, the study investigates whether the several billions of air-conditioning devices expected to come online within the 21st century could be powered by clean PV electricity, avoiding the need for additional carbon-based electricity generation, and accelerating the growth of the PV industry in the process. Dr Hannu Laine, the study’s lead author, says, “As we scoured through the scientific literature, we found many detailed theoretical and experimental studies demonstrating the synergy of cooling and PV on small-scale such as single buildings or communities. However, we were unable to locate a single analysis assessing the scope and degree of the synergy of cooling and PV at a global level.”

Another omittance was the discussion on how the picture will change as global warming proceeds, tropical countries gain wealth and as air-conditioners grow more efficient, “This deficiency makes it impossible for policymakers, investors and researchers to estimate the global impact of the phenomenon” Dr Laine adds.

The study team set out to estimate how much PV electricity generation would be required to power the global cooling demand today and how that number would change as tropical countries gain wealth, as global warming proceeds, and as technological innovation creates more efficient air-conditioners. Using established socio-economic, climate change and energy efficiency improvement projections, they predicted that the cooling demand would increase from approximately 400 TWh/year in 2018 to nearly 14,000 TWh/year by the end of the century, a dramatic 35-fold increase, despite air-conditioners growing significantly more efficient. In monetary terms, this means that the cooling industry increases from an approximately 50 billion dollars/year industry to a 1.5 trillion dollars/year industry.

It was concluded that the potential added AC PV capacity is on par with the global PV production capacity today as a whole, or enough to power the entire country of France with PV, and by the end of the century it will grow to be enough to meet that of India. Dr Laine concludes, “We expect these results to drive significant additional policy interest as well as research and business investments into the synergy of cooling and solar photovoltaics.”

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Materials provided by Aalto University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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