Solar energy is the conversion of sunlight into usable energy forms. Solar photovoltaics (PV), solar thermal electricity and solar heating and cooling are well established solar technologies.

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Solar electricity could provide up to a quarter of world demand by 2050

In 2010 the IEA released two Technology Roadmaps: the solar Photovoltaic (PV) and Concentrating Solar Power (CSP). The reports detail what milestones must be reached for Photovoltaic and Concentrating Solar technologies to provide up to 9 000 TWh of power by 2050. More »»

About solar photovoltaics


Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems directly convert solar energy into electricity.


The basic building block of a PV system is the PV cell, which is a semiconductor device that converts solar energy into direct-current electricity. PV cells are interconnected to form a PV module, typically up to 50 to 200 Watts. The PV modules, combined with a set of additional application-dependent system components (e.g. inverters, batteries, electrical components, and mounting systems), form a PV system. PV systems are highly modular; i.e. modules can be linked together to provide power ranging from a few watts to hundreds of megawatts.

The most established solar PV technologies are crystalline silicon-based systems. Thin-film modules, which can also consist of non-silicon semiconductor material, represent about 10% of the global market. Concentrating PV, where sunlight is focused onto a smaller area has just entered full market deployment. Concentrating PV cells have very high efficiencies of up to 40% - but only with respect to direct normal irradiance. Other technologies, such as organic PV cells, are still in the research phase.

Solar PV combines two advantages. On the one hand, module manufacturing can be done in large plants, which allows for economies of scale. On the other hand, PV is a very modular technology. It can be deployed in very small quantities at a time. This quality allows for a wide range of applications. Systems can be very small, such as in calculators, up to utility-scale power generation facilities.

Compared to concentrating solar power (CSP) and CPV, non-concentrating (“1-sun”) PV has the advantage that it uses not only direct sunlight but also the diffuse component of sunlight, i.e. solar PV produces power even if the sky is not completely clear. This capability allows the effective deployment in many more regions in the world than for CSP.

Because PV generates power from sunlight, power output is limited to times when the sun is shining. However, as IEA analysis under the Grid Integration of Vraiable Renewables (GIVAR) project has highlighted, a number of options (demand response, flexible generation, grid infrastructure, storage) exist to cost-effectively deal with this challenge.

Solar PV is the second-largest source of new capacity, another third of deployment. 

Solar PV electricity generation and forecast by region

IEA, (2015), Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2015, OECD/IEA, Paris.


On 29th of September 2014 the IEA released Technology Roadmap: Solar Photovoltaic Energy - 2014 edition

For more information on solar PV technologies please also refer to Solar Energy Perspectives.

About concentrating solar power


Concentrating solar power (CSP) devices concentrate energy from the sun’s rays to heat a receiver to high temperatures. This heat is then transformed into electricity – solar thermal electricity (STE).


Concentrating solar thermal power and solar fuels technologies produce electricity and possibly other energy carriers (“fuels”) by concentrating solar radiation to heat various materials to high temperatures. A concentrating solar power (CSP) plant comprises a field of solar collectors, receivers, and a power block, where the heat collected in the solar field is transformed into mechanical energy, then electricity. In between, the system must include one or several heat transfer or working fluids, possibly heat storage devices and/or back-up/hybridisation systems with some combustible fuel. A cooling system, wet or dry, completes the description of the plant (IEA, 2010d). CSP plants come in four different versions: parabolic trough, linear Fresnel, tower and parabolic dish systems.

On 29th of September 2014 the IEA released Technology Roadmap: Solar Thermal Electricity - 2014 edition.

For more information on solar PV technologies please also refer to Solar Energy Perspectives.

About solar heating & cooling

Solar heating:

A variety of technologies exists to capture solar radiation and convert it into heat for a wide number of applications. Several solar heating technologies are already mature and can be competitive in certain regions of the world in applications such as domestic hot water heating and swimming pool heating.

The most mature technology, the solar domestic hot water system, has a long history but was first deployed on a large scale in the 1960s in countries such as Australia, Japan and Israel. Since then some markets have shown strong increased deployment as a result of the introduction of long-term subsidy schemes or solar obligations (e.g. subsidies in Austria and Germany, and solar obligations in Israel and Spain) or as a result of solar hot water systems’ competitive advantages over alternative technologies (e.g. China, Cyprus). Over the past 15 years, China’s economic development has spurred the market for solar hot water heating in terms of both system component manufacture and end-use demand.

STE deployment continues to spread out to newer markets, though the bulk of commercially operating capacity to date remains concentrated in the United States and Spain. In 2014, global STE cumulative capacity grew by around 1 GW to 4.9 GW.

STE generation and projection by region

 MTRMR2015_STE generation and forecast by region

IEA, (2015), Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2015, OECD/IEA, Paris.



Solar cooling:

Solar thermal district cooling networks could have strong potential for the enhanced use of renewable heat for cooling, as availability of the solar resource usually correlates to the cooling demand in buildings. Estimates indicate around 1 000 solar cooling systems installed worldwide at the end of 2012, with 80% of these installations found in Europe (mainly Spain, Germany and Italy). While solar cooling remains a niche market, the market has grown considerably in recent years.

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Fast facts

  • 128 GW Global solar PV capacity installed at the end of 2013
  • 22%Decrease of multicrystalline silicon module prices in 2013 in comparison to the previous year