Most analysts now agree: solar photovoltaic (PV) panels will likely be the number one power technology that drives the global shift to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. While the cost of both solar and wind power has plummeted in recent years, solar is less complicated to deploy at both local and utility scale, and will be particularly important for the energy transitions of sunny nations in the Global South.
Even with surging commodity prices and supply chain issues, 152GW of new solar capacity was added worldwide in 2021 – around 50% more than the equivalent figure for wind. It is also significantly up on the 138GW of solar capacity added in 2020, or the 105GW added in 2019, shows data from GlobalData, Energy Monitor’s parent company. The latest renewables report from the International Energy Agency highlights that utility-scale solar PV is now the cheapest option for new electricity in “a significant majority of countries”, with policy initiatives in India, China and the EU driving global growth.
Which countries have transitioned their power systems the most towards solar power? Energy Monitor takes you through the global solar leaders below, based on exclusive electricity generation estimates for 2022 from GlobalData.
1. Chile – 18% solar electricity
By far and away the global leader for solar generation is Chile, whose share of solar generation in 2022 is a full five percentage points higher than the next country on the list. It is an appropriate position for a country that includes the Atacama Desert, which is almost entirely cloudless and receives more solar radiation per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world.
So great is the country’s solar ambition that the government is currently making plans to build a 15,000km submarine cable, known as Antípodas, between the Atacama Desert and China.
2. Honduras – 12.5% solar electricity
A land of contradictions, Honduras is home to the second-biggest barrier reef in the world and the second-largest rainforest in the Americas, but it is also ravaged by violent drug trafficking gangs, corruption and extreme poverty.
The Honduran government has nonetheless shown itself to be heavily committed to the energy transition. A series of policy reforms launched in 2012 have seen the country’s electricity generation rapidly shift from 30% renewables in 2012 to 75% renewables in 2018, according to the country’s central bank. Solar and hydropower are leading this charge, and in 2016, Honduras became the first non-island nation in the world to generate more than 10% of its electricity from solar panels.
3. Australia – 12.3% solar electricity
After years of lacklustre federal action on climate change, green policy is now front and centre of the political agenda in Australia following the election of Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party this year. Even before this, solar power was making significant inroads into the country’s power mix, with the sparsely populated, largely desert country offering prime solar conditions.
Some 7GW of utility-scale solar was added to Australia's power network in 2020–21, according to the country’s renewable energy agency, while more than 30% of Australians now have solar panels on their roof. In August 2022, the country caught a glimpse of the opportunities and challenges of a renewables-powered future when solar energy beat coal as the leading source of power across the country’s energy market for around half an hour.
4. Greece – 12% solar electricity
The first European country on the list is the sun-kissed Southern European republic of Greece. In May 2022, government data showed that solar capacity additions were greater than wind additions for the first time ever, with wind facing delays as a result of rising costs, bureaucratic hurdles and local opposition.
In April 2022, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis inaugurated the largest utility-scale solar farm in south-eastern Europe, the 204MW Kozani solar park in Western Macedonia. A hugely symbolic moment, the plant is situated in the heart of the country’s lignite mining regions, an industry that has been the historic mainstay of the local economy and supports thousands of jobs.
5. El Salvador – 11.8% solar electricity
The smallest country in Central America, El Salvador is known for its frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. The country’s government is in the midst of implementing a new long-term national energy policy that will see the country target net-zero emissions in 2050. With two-thirds of its energy coming from imported fossil fuels in 2019, the transition to renewables makes sense on energy security and economic – as well as climate – grounds.
“El Salvador has made it clear that renewables are a prerequisite to national economic and social development,” said Francesco La Camera, director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency, in January.
6. The Netherlands – 11% solar electricity
Densely populated and not particularly sunny, the Netherlands’ place on the solar superpowers list shows it is not just countries with high solar potential that can make significant progress with solar power.
The Netherlands has the most solar panels per capita in Europe, according to trade association SolarPower Europe, beating the likes of Germany, Denmark and Switzerland. A recent report published by the Applied Scientific Research Organisation suggests the country’s prioritisation of solar may see it reach 132GW of solar capacity by 2050.
7. Israel – 11% solar electricity
With little land or natural resources, solar power is a big policy priority for the Israeli government. Following Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s national commitment at COP26 to reaching net zero by 2050, the country plans to reach 20% solar electricity by 2025 and 30% by 2030.
Much of the country’s solar capacity is in the form of residential installations, with many homeowners encouraged to invest by the soaring consumer energy prices currently being experienced around the world. There was a 12% increase in the installation of solar PV panels on private homes in Israel in the first six months of 2022, according to data from the company Enerpoint.
8. Yemen – 10.8% solar electricity
Yemen has for years been the poorest country in the Middle East and North Africa, a status quo cemented by the devastating civil war that broke out in 2014. Fighting has left 80% of Yemenis at risk of hunger, says the UN, while only 10% of Yemenis now access electricity from the grid.
Data from Yemen is, understandably, unreliable, and particularly so in the energy space given the countless informal power generation arrangements that exist. Nevertheless, Yemen has been retained in this ranking, as the rapid roll-out of solar power since the breakout of the civil war is a widely reported phenomenon. A “solar revolution” backed by aid agencies and organisations like the UN and World Bank has ensured hospitals and schools have remained open, and saved farmers money by reducing the need for expensive diesel fuel.
9. Japan – 10.4% solar electricity
Japan’s rush to roll out solar power began in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which prompted policymakers to diversify the power mix away from nuclear as fast as possible. So extensive has the spread of panels been across the country’s hilly landscape, that they have reportedly been the cause of mudslides in 29 of the country’s 47 prefectures.
Japan was the leader for solar technological innovation in 2021, with six of the top ten companies by total solar patents held coming from Japan.
10. Mauritania – 9.9% solar electricity
Coming last in the top ten is the only African country on the list, the Saharan nation of Mauritania. With a population of 4.4 million and a GDP worth just $5.2bn, more than two-thirds of the population are without access to electricity from the grid.
However, it is a country with massive renewable energy resources, receiving huge amounts of sunlight, and with a long Atlantic coastline that is well-suited to wind turbines. The majority of the country’s solar energy comes from a 15MW UAE-funded solar farm near the capital, Nouakchott, which accounts for around 10% of the country’s grid capacity.