Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants could meet 7 percent of the world's power needs by 2030 and 25 percent by 2050, according to by Greenpeace, the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association and the International Energy Agency.
Such systems currently make up just 430 megawatts of generation capacity, or less than one half of one percent of electricity needs worldwide.
CSP "is about to step out of the shadow of other renewable technologies and can establish itself as the third biggest player in the sustainable power generation industry," the report's authors write.
If that giant leap in capacity happens, they say, the sector would employ 2 million people in the next four decades and save 2.1 billion tons of global warming emissions in 2050.
Here's a glance at what it would take:
For Europe in particular, the report recommends engagement with North Africa, which has an "unlimited" solar resource that could power Europe by 2050 for a cost of $400 billion over 30 years. It's a promising project that is clearly not yet on the horizon.
Investment in the CSP sector passed the $1 billion mark in 2008, according to the . In 2009, it is expected to exceed $2.8 billion. Most of the installations so far are in Spain and the United States.
CSP uses vast solar mirrors that concentrate the sun's rays to temperatures of between 750 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to drive steam turbines. The claims that deploying a CSP supergrid on a stretch of desert 186 miles on each side could technically power the whole world.
The good news is the technology is proven. The first large-scale commercial CSP stations were built in California's Mojave Desert some 25 years ago. Even better is that utility-scale installations are "now economically viable," the report states.
High initial investment is required for new CSP plants. But, over the entire lifecycle of the plant, 80 percent of the cost is from construction and associated debt, and only 20 percent comes from operation. In fact, the report notes that the experiences with CSP plants constructed in California between 1984 and 1991 show that:
"Once the plant has been paid for, in 25 or 30 years, only operating costs, which are currently about 3 cents/kWh, remain and the electricity is cheaper than any competition; comparable only to long-written-off hydropower plants."
Bottom line, the report says:
"Only when funds are available without high-risk surcharges can solar thermal power plant technology become competitive with medium-load fossil-fuel power plants."
True, investment funds and market incentives are vital to make CSP as cheap as coal. But the chances of these happening are dependent on something else that's desperately needed and sorely lacking: the political will to carry out the CSP solar vision.