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As the most powerful energy source on Earth, it’s believed people have been harnessing the energy of the sun for more than 2,500 years with early civilisations using magnifying glasses to light fires.

Despite this long history, most people’s early experiences of solar power started small, with the single-cell used to power unassuming devices such as school calculators and Solar generally had a small part to play in the UK’s energy generation until subsidies were brought in in the 2010s and the price of solar panels lowered.

But in the last decade, more solar capacity was installed than any other power generating technology.So, from humble beginnings, how did solar power become a global leader in power generation?

Solar Power was a Slow Burner

Among the reasons for the slow evolution of solar is the cost. In 1956, solar panels cost roughly $300 per watt. By 1975, that figure had dropped to just over $100 a watt and today, a solar panel can cost as little as $0.50 a watt. As a result, in the US it took forty years to reach one million solar installations in 2016 and just three years to reach two million in 2019.

Large-scale solar projects are also gathering more momentum across the world, in part because the cost of panels themselves has dropped by 81% in the last decade. As a result of the increasing cost-effectiveness, in the US, Wood Mackenzie expects the number of solar projects larger than 120 MW to be commissioned to grow from 11 in 2019 to 32 in 2021.

Solar farms have been popular in the US for a long time, due to availability of land and appropriate climate. However, solar projects in the US are continually growing in popularity, particularly due to the ability for socially distanced construction during the Coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the US features some of the largest solar farms in the world – including Solar Star, which has more than 1.7 million solar panels across 13 sq km in Kern and Los Angeles. As well as this, ConnectGen, a Houston-based renewables developer, is planning a 500 MW solar power project in Leon County, Texas.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, Germany has been amongst the world’s top generators of solar power for several years, and in 2004 they were one of the first countries to reach 1GW of cumulative installed photovoltaic capacity.

Job vacancies are set to double by 2021

While Europe has an established solar sector, job numbers are still growing – as a result of new installations and growth in cumulative capacity, jobs within solar powerare set to double by 2021 compared to 2016.

An important factor in the solar market is many countries are committed to ensuring the jobs are created locally. For every TWh of power produced, solar currently creates 1,100 jobs in Europe, while in the Middle East, ‘In-Country Value’ is becoming an increasingly large factor in tender bids for solar contracts.

Solar is still a relatively new industry in the Middle East, and developers are increasing their national hiring and graduate programmes with the goal of introducing national experts into the solar industry.

Ambitious targets have been set by governments worldwide

Dubai hosts one of the most ambitious solar projects in the world, built in phases between 2012 to 2030. The Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park project is located 50km south of Dubai and is part of the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050 that is targeting 75% of Dubai’s energy from clean sources by 2050. The solar park was originally set to be able to generate 1,000MW but will now have a planned capacity of 5,000MW by 2030 – enough to power 800,000 homes.

Never a market to be left behind in terms of innovation or scale, in East Asia, Japan has been at the forefront of solar power technology since the late 1990s. As well as being a global leader in power generation, the country is also the leader in manufacturing the technology and is responsible for producing 45% of the world’s photovoltaic cells.

Overall, Japan has 30 solar power stations across the country and holds the record for constructing one of the largest solar power buildings in the world. Named the ‘Solar Ark’ the facility is a solar photovoltaic power station that is over 300 metres wide and 37 metres tall. It has over 5,000 panels that produce 530,000KWh on an annual basis.

Meanwhile, Chinese energy providers have set their sights even further, with scientists exploring the possibility of installing a space-based solar power station in orbit, 22,370 miles above the earth. The station would occupy an area covering 33-acres and could start to generate power before 2040, truly taking renewable energy generation to a new frontier.

While many of our personal experiences of solar started small, today solar power is being developed at mass utility-scale, and by 2050 it is predicted to become the world’s largest source of electricity.

NES Fircroft and Renewable Energy

At NES we’re excited to see such a sustained and unprecedented growth in renewable technologies supporting the energy industry.

If you’re looking for skilled personnel our discipline-specific consultants can support all stages of your renewable project life cycle, from the funding, design and installation phases’ right through to project management and grid installations.

We work on some of the most exciting renewables projects globally, meaning we have plenty of renewable job opportunities for engineers looking to enhance their energy careers.