Latest solar data reveals sunny 2008

US and Europe both enjoy record years for solar installations as industry insists there are a few clouds on the horizon.

Concerns may be mounting about the ability to find financing for large-scale projects, but that has not stopped the solar energy industry on both sides of the Atlantic painting an upbeat picture of the sector this week.

New figures from both the US Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) confirmed that the industry enjoyed a record year during 2008 and remains confident that it can continue to expand this year despite the onset of recession.

According to the SEIA, overall US solar capacity grew a record 17 per cent last year to 8,775MW, while domestic PV manufacturing capacity increased 65 per cent to almost 700MW as new plants opened in California, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon and Tennessee.

The expansion was driven by an 81 per cent increase in grid connected PV installations to 292MW, as well as a 50 per cent increase in solar water heating systems.

The report said that no new large-scale concentrating solar power plants came online during 2008, but noted that more than 6GW of capacity is now in the pipeline with a number of huge projects expected to start generating power over the next two years.

"Despite severe economic pressures in the US, demand for solar energy grew tremendously in 2008," said Rhone Resch, president and chief executive of SEIA. "Increasingly, solar energy has proven to be an economic engine for this country, creating thousands of jobs, unleashing billions in investment dollars and building new factories from New Hampshire to Michigan to Oregon."

He added that "smart federal policies", such as binding targets for solar energy capacity and unified rules for selling energy to the grid, would allow the industry to maintain its growth and help meet President Obama's target of doubling US renewable energy capacity within three years.

His optimistic outlook was echoed by the EPIA which released new figures showing that the global PV market more than doubled from 2.4GW in 2007 to 5.5GW a year later.

The report said that Spain, Germany and the US recorded the most rapid market expansion, helping to take global solar PV capacity to 15GW.

It also predicted that while "high uncertainties" will dog the market throughout 2009 the emergence of sizable new markets such as South Korea, Italy , France, Portugal, Belgium and the Czech Republic meant that the sector could again achieve global sales of around 7GW.

Dr Winfried Hoffmann, president of EPIA, said the industry was seeing a " diversification of the market" with countries adopting appropriate support policies that should continue to drive growth across the sector over the next five years. The association predicted that should feed-in tariffs and other support mechanisms become more widely adopted, the global PV market could reach 22GW by 2013.

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