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Solar energy around the world

How do we compare?

By Ania Szmyd-Potapczuk

, |

Solar energy around the world

How do we compare?

By Ania Szmyd-Potapczuk

, |

4 min read

There is a worldwide trend towards the uptake of renewable resources for power generation, but it seems that South Africa is lagging behind. So let’s have a look at what other countries are doing, focusing mainly on solar, and see how we compare.


Overall, most countries have started to realise that the future of power generation lies in renewable energy. According to the BP Statistical Overview of Global Energy, renewables formed 9.3% of total global power generation in 2018, up from 3% in 2008. Around 70% of this power generation still comes from hydropower, but other renewable sources are steadily gaining ground.

The United States

Renewable energy is the fastest-growing energy source in the United States, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Renewables made up 17% of net electricity generation in 2018, predominantly from hydropower and wind.

Solar generation is rapidly on the rise in the USA, and projections suggest it will rise to 48% of total renewable energy generation by 2050. The government has several measures in place to promote solar power generation on both a federal and state level. On the federal level, the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which offers a 26% tax credit for both residential and commercial solar installations, has, since its inception in 2006, contributed significantly to the 10,000% growth of the US solar industry.


The EU established the European Green Deal in 2019, the aim of which is to be the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. The first milestone is to have 20% of Europe’s gross final energy consumption be from renewable sources by 2020, and recent data shows that the continent is on track to meet its goal.

While hydropower still makes up the bulk of renewable energy generation, Europe is also set to invest heavily in wind power. Currently, wind power is the most important renewable source of energy for the continent, but solar power has expanded significantly from 7.5 TWh in 2008 to 115 TWh in 2018.

Scandinavian countries, including Sweden, Norway and Denmark, are currently ahead of their targets. While some of this is due to political buy-in and subsequent initiatives, there are several other factors at play as well. Many Scandinavians are eco-conscious and want to be part of the solution. As solar becomes more affordable, many individuals are investing in solar power, as it provides a way of taking action, as well as being a good investment. Individual actions, combined with positive messaging and governmental incentives, have put Scandinavian countries at the forefront of the switch from carbon-based power to renewables.


Asia is a massive landmass with several distinct subregions, including China, India, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. Overall, while the region is a renewable energy leader worldwide, many areas lag behind and rely heavily on traditional energy sources. In 2016, India had less than 40% renewable energy share, and China only had 20%. There is still a strong focus on hydroelectric power, with considerable room for growth in both wind and solar.

The Middle East

Despite being known as the world’s leading oil producer, the Middle East is currently at the forefront of installing solar and making the shift away from carbon-based energy production. The main driver of this shift is the fact that many areas in the Middle East are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, particularly the large coastal cities.

Luckily, the region is well suited to solar power, which has led to the installation of the world’s largest solar plant, the Noor Abu Dhabi. In addition to solar power, Dubai is also currently building a significant hydroelectric power plant. The end goal is to use solar power to pump water to the dam’s reservoir at off-peak times and then focus on hydroelectric power during peak energy drain events. It’s a smart way of overcoming one of the most substantial challenges of solar energy, namely energy storage.

South America

Latin America is an attractive investment opportunity for renewables, which has led to over $16.44 billion in renewable energy investment. Brazil alone received $7.1 billion in 2015. These investments have yielded significant results, with solar growing 18-fold over the past five years. In 2016, Costa Rica and Uruguay generated almost all their energy from renewables, with wind power leading the way at 10.5% and 22.8%, respectively.

In 2019, the Latin American region collectively pledged to have 70% renewable energy use by 2030, which is well ahead of what most regions have set. At the same time, Brazil opened up the largest solar panel plant in South America earlier in the year, which is expected to generate over 1,200 GWh per year.

South Africa

South Africa is very well suited to solar energy. According to the South African Department of Energy, most areas in the country average over 2,500 hours of sunshine per year. Each hour of sunshine translates to 1,000Wh/m2, more than enough to power the entire country.

However, despite the abundance of sunshine, South Africa has failed to capitalise on this resource. Currently, renewable energy makes up a tiny portion of electricity sales, at only 6.9 GWh of the total 214 GWh sold by Eskom in 2017. In fact, according to the South African Department of Energy, South Africa ranked last in installed renewable energy capacity when compared to other BRICS countries in 2016.

It’s clear from initiatives from the rest of the world that the switch to solar power requires buy-in from governments and individuals. The countries with the most success, such as Sweden and Norway, have leveraged large-scale investments, as well as residential and smaller-scale projects, to great effect, despite the fact that they have significantly fewer hours of sunshine than we do.

South Africa launched the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) in 2011 specifically to encourage investment in renewable energy. While moderately successful, the programme has failed to produce the same results seen in other countries – till now, but there is room for optimism.

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