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This turbulent year has proven the steadiness and resilience of solar energy

Solar and renewables are “defying the difficulties caused by the pandemic, showing robust growth while other fuels struggle,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said during a presentation of IEA’s Renewables 2020 report. This positive message comes at the end of a very difficult year, with all market sectors impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, over the course of this year, a clear trend has emerged: solar and renewables have offered predictability, resilience and security while other energy sources have failed.

Despite the devastating health and economic impact of the pandemic, Germany has in fact seen the highest contribution of renewables to its energy mix in history. According to Fraunhofer ISE, 52.4 per cent of all national electricity generation came from renewable sources so far this year. This represents an increase from 46 per cent of renewables in Germany’s mix last year, showing that the green transition is progressing despite the effects of COVID-19. When we look at the contribution of solar specifically, we see the same resilience, with Germany’s solar share reaching 10 per cent for the first time ever. Let’s pause to reflect on that: despite the turmoil of this year, solar will represent 10 per cent of Germany’s electricity generation this year, which is the highest share in history! But not only did German solar contributions increase, solar instalments are higher than ever since 2012, with over 3.5 GW installed so far, improving on last year’s figure of 2.97 GW by the third quarter. This data shows us that in the face of a global health crisis, solar stays strong.

Other examples this year show us situations in which solar does not succeed despite the crisis, but actually offers unique solutions that address the difficult conditions. For example, solar can be deployed rapidly in regions that do not have access to reliable electricity or any electricity grid at all and thus health services can be impeded because of the infrastructural limitations. Solar, together with storage solutions, can allow health centres facing such limited energy conditions to work around the clock, without the need for candles or flashlights. This is captured in UNDP’s Solar for Health programme and also in solar projects in Sub-Saharan Africa explored in our latest podcast series, which together reveal a green energy generation model that improves access to health care in the context of the pandemic while saving lives, money and the environment. Due to its scalability and versatility, solar has emerged as a leading technology to provide clean energy to rural areas and emerging markets.

But even in more developed regions, we have seen people turn to solar as a form of reliable and self-sufficient energy. According to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), residential and commercial-scale solar in Australia has broken many records in 2020. For example, in September, 77 per cent of South Australia’s energy needs were met by rooftop solar, marking record-level generation rates for the region. AEMO projects that South Australia will install 36,000 new rooftop solar systems in the next year, with more households turning to solar for autonomy and cost-effectiveness during these uncertain times.

This growth in rooftop solar makes perfect sense in areas vulnerable to wildfires and blackouts, like Australia and California, but other regions can learn from this too. In well-connected, urban areas, solar energy results in a significant decrease in air pollution, leading to better conditions during a time when masked residents and high-risk individuals need to breathe freely. This is not to mention the large-scale potential for solar to help with economic recoveries, as cities and countries around the world have already taken advantage of this opportunity, investing in solar and renewable installations and generating thousands of jobs in the process. Looking ahead to potential recessions and job crises, solar, as the most job-intensive energy technology, becomes even more of an obvious solution to lead the COVID-19 recovery.

The IEA has made similar recommendations to the US government this past year, detailing how solar and renewables can also ease the pandemic’s unemployment burden. Some of this potential is already underway, with solar installations in the country breaking the previous record high of 15 GW in 2016, with 18 GW already installed this year. There are even reports that solar will actually grow this year compared to 2019, with Wood Mackenzie predicting that globally solar will grow 5 per cent against all odds. We will see if solar reaches this target, but the very possibility of market growth in such a difficult year is reason enough to remain optimistic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons: the value of essential workers; the importance of clean air; the power of solidarity in facing the crisis. A further resounding lesson is the resilience of solar, which has provided clean energy non-stop throughout this year and offers a cost-effective solution to emerge stronger and more sustainable in the future.

Walburga Hemetsberger will be one of the speakers at the Budapest Energy Summit to be held online on 1 December.

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