Within the past 20 years, solar power has grown from a niche product to a significant presence in the global energy market. In 2000, the world’s installed solar power capacity was around one megawatt—now that figure stands at 305 gigawatts, approximately one percent of the total installed global energy capacity. But despite its recent growth, the future success of solar power is far from assured, with some analysts predicting a “multi-year” slowdown in the global solar market beginning this year. The continued success of solar will hinge on various factors, including policy initiatives and research and development. But recent studies suggest that the development of certain fossil fuel technologies—and in particular natural gas—could also help to keep solar power moving upwards.
Gas and solar are good business partners
The economic impact of natural gas on coal power has been studied for decades, however much less research has been conducted on how it might affect the emerging solar power market. Recently, various studies have begun to shed light on how gas and solar interact at the economic level, and the findings suggest that a surprising synergy could exist between the two technologies.
In 2016, a study published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed the growth of “fast-reacting” natural gas power, alongside renewable energy technologies, mostly solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power, between 1990 and 2013. The researchers, led by Elena Verdolini of the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change and the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, used economic data from 26 developed nations, including the United States, Canada, Japan and most of Western Europe to analyze how the two energy types behaved in parallel. The results of the study showed that a large correlation existed between the growth of fast-reacting fossil fuels (FRF), of which natural gas is the most widely used, and the growth of renewable energy. Verdolini and her colleagues found that, on average, for every one percent increase in the share of FRF, renewable energy generation increased by 0.88 percent—almost a 1:1 ratio.
They also concluded that, in the absence of economically viable storage options “countries where FRF capacity was available were more likely to invest in renewable energy generation.” The study was particularly robust, given the long dataset and wide range of countries studied. It was widely reported in the media at the time, and prompted the Washington Post to run the headline “Turns out wind and solar have a secret friend: Natural gas.”