Solar industry heating up, report says

Investment in solar energy surged worldwide to $147

Investment in solar energy surged worldwide to $147 billion in 2011, an increase of 52 percent. Above, a house in East Hampton goes green with solar panels on the roof. (April 5, 2012) (Credit: Randee Daddona)

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Global investment in renewable energy reached a record of $257 billion last year, with solar attracting more than half the total spending, according to a UN report released Monday.

Investment in solar energy surged to $147 billion in 2011, a year-on-year increase of 52 percent thanks to strong demand for rooftop photovoltaic installations in Germany, Italy, China and Britain.

Large-scale solar thermal installations in Spain and the United States also contributed to growth during a fiercely competitive year for the solar industry. Several large American and German manufacturers fell victim to price pressure from Chinese rivals that helped to halve the cost of photovoltaic modules in 2011.

The report's authors said the demise of companies such as Solyndra, Evergreen Solar, SpectraWatt, Solar Millenium and Solon was a sign that the solar industry is maturing.

"In 1903, the United States had over 500 car companies, most of which quickly fell by the wayside even as the automobile sector grew into an industrial juggernaut," the report said. "Today, the renewable energy sector is experiencing similar growing pains as the sector consolidates."

China was responsible for almost a fifth of the total investment volume, spending $52 billion on renewable energy last year. The United States was close behind with investments of $51 billion, as developers sought to benefit from government incentive programs before they expired. Germany, Italy and India rounded out the top five.

Wind power investment slipped 12 percent to $84 billion due to uncertainty about energy policy in Europe and fewer new installations in China, according to the report.

Overall investment in renewable energy grew 17 percent, a slowdown from the 37 percent increase seen in 2010.

The UN is hoping that countries will use an environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, next week to commit to further investments in renewable energy, which covered just 16.7 percent of global energy consumption in 2010.

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