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The Exponential View of Solar Energy



The Exponential View of Solar Energy, and Why the Cost of Solar has Plummeted

The Exponential View of Solar Energy

The human brain is terrible at comprehending exponential growth.

Much like the power of compound interest is a magical force for investors, it is also possible for innovations and technological breakthroughs to build off each other in the physical world, creating a similar compounding effect.

In this chart, we look at how solar technology has surpassed all expectations from an economics perspective, including those initially set by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Then later, we’ll also look at a new set of predictions for solar energy economics over the next 30 years.

Solar Energy: The Technological Overachiever

Back in 2010, the cost of utility-scale solar power ranged between $0.25-$0.37 per kWh. This meant it was at least three times as expensive as fossil fuels, and that solar was highly cost-inefficient at the time.

Going forward, most organizations projected a linear path for whittling down the cost of solar.

The IEA, for example, forecast that the global cost of solar would drop to roughly $0.22 per kWh by 2020. In reality, however, the price dropped to about one-fifth of that at $0.04 per kWh.

YearActual (BNEF Global) - $ per kWh2010 Forecast (IEA) - $ per kWh

Almost all industry forecasters, including the IEA itself, missed the exponential factors at play.

Wright’s Law

Ramez Naam, the co-chair for energy and the environment at Singularity University, points out in his blog that the exponential decrease in solar costs stem from Wright’s Law:

For most technologies, every doubling of cumulative scale of production will lead to a fixed percentage decline in cost of the technology.
-Wright’s Law

Professor Naam says this occurs through “learning-by-doing”, and more specifically:

  1. Innovation that improves the technology itself
  2. Innovation that reduces the amount of labor, time, energy, and materials needed to produce the tech

Put another way, the more solar panels we make and the more we install—the better we get at the whole process over time. And once we’re making thousands or millions of panels, the costs come down exponentially, much like with lithium-ion batteries.

The Future of Solar Costs

Over the years, Naam has taken his own stab at forecasting the cost of solar energy into the future, leveraging the idea of Wright’s Law.

Here’s what he sees coming, based on using a 30% learning rate* for solar:
Future cost of solar based on 30% learning rate Wright's Law

*The learning rate is the fixed percentage decline that occurs with every doubling of the scale of production.

Based on these projections, even the costliest of solar installations will be more economical than the cheapest of utility-scale fossil fuel plants. This means solar can basically go anywhere, and make sense from a cost perspective.

Underestimate Solar No More?

For fun, here’s a final look at how IEA projections have constantly underestimated solar installations, which are one of the key factors dictating the “learning rate” under Wright’s Law:

missed iea solar capacity forecasts

With solar energy costs plummeting to record lows and global installations continuing to ramp, it’s possible that solar forecasters may no longer forget about the exponential nature of solar production.

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Visualizing China’s Dominance in Battery Manufacturing (2022-2027P)

This infographic breaks down battery manufacturing capacity by country in 2022 and 2027.



battery manufacturing capacity by country infographic

Visualizing China’s Dominance in Battery Manufacturing

With the world gearing up for the electric vehicle era, battery manufacturing has become a priority for many nations, including the United States.

However, having entered the race for batteries early, China is far and away in the lead.

Using the data and projections behind BloombergNEF’s lithium-ion supply chain rankings, this infographic visualizes battery manufacturing capacity by country in 2022 and 2027p, highlighting the extent of China’s battery dominance.

Battery Manufacturing Capacity by Country in 2022

In 2022, China had more battery production capacity than the rest of the world combined.

RankCountry2022 Battery Cell
Manufacturing Capacity, GWh
% of Total
#1 🇨🇳 China89377%
#2🇵🇱 Poland736%
#3🇺🇸 U.S.706%
#4🇭🇺 Hungary383%
#5🇩🇪 Germany313%
#6🇸🇪 Sweden161%
#7🇰🇷 South Korea151%
#8🇯🇵 Japan121%
#9🇫🇷 France61%
#10🇮🇳 India30.2%
🌍 Other71%

With nearly 900 gigawatt-hours of manufacturing capacity or 77% of the global total, China is home to six of the world’s 10 biggest battery makers. Behind China’s battery dominance is its vertical integration across the rest of the EV supply chain, from mining the metals to producing the EVs. It’s also the largest EV market, accounting for 52% of global sales in 2021.

Poland ranks second with less than one-tenth of China’s capacity. In addition, it hosts LG Energy Solution’s Wroclaw gigafactory, the largest of its kind in Europe and one of the largest in the world. Overall, European countries (including non-EU members) made up just 14% of global battery manufacturing capacity in 2022.

Although it lives in China’s shadow when it comes to batteries, the U.S. is also among the world’s lithium-ion powerhouses. As of 2022, it had eight major operational battery factories, concentrated in the Midwest and the South.

China’s Near-Monopoly Continues Through 2027

Global lithium-ion manufacturing capacity is projected to increase eightfold in the next five years. Here are the top 10 countries by projected battery production capacity in 2027:

RankCountry2027P Battery Cell
Manufacturing Capacity, GWh
% of Total
#1🇨🇳 China6,19769%
#2🇺🇸 U.S.90810%
#3🇩🇪 Germany5036%
#4🇭🇺 Hungary1942%
#5🇸🇪 Sweden1352%
#6🇵🇱 Poland1121%
#7🇨🇦 Canada1061%
#8🇪🇸 Spain981%
#9🇫🇷 France891%
#10 🇲🇽 Mexico801%
🌍 Other5236%

China’s well-established advantage is set to continue through 2027, with 69% of the world’s battery manufacturing capacity.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is projected to increase its capacity by more than 10-fold in the next five years. EV tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act are likely to incentivize battery manufacturing by rewarding EVs made with domestic materials. Alongside Ford and General Motors, Asian companies including Toyota, SK Innovation, and LG Energy Solution have all announced investments in U.S. battery manufacturing in recent months.

Europe will host six of the projected top 10 countries for battery production in 2027. Europe’s current and future battery plants come from a mix of domestic and foreign firms, including Germany’s Volkswagen, China’s CATL, and South Korea’s SK Innovation.

Can Countries Cut Ties With China?

Regardless of the growth in North America and Europe, China’s dominance is unmatched.

Battery manufacturing is just one piece of the puzzle, albeit a major one. Most of the parts and metals that make up a battery—like battery-grade lithium, electrolytes, separators, cathodes, and anodes—are primarily made in China.

Therefore, combating China’s dominance will be expensive. According to Bloomberg, the U.S. and Europe will have to invest $87 billion and $102 billion, respectively, to meet domestic battery demand with fully local supply chains by 2030.

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Visualizing 25 Years of Lithium Production, by Country

Lithium production has grown exponentially over the last few decades. Which countries produce the most lithium, and how has this mix evolved?



lithium production

Lithium Production by Country (1995-2021)

Lithium is often dubbed as “white gold” for electric vehicles.

The lightweight metal plays a key role in the cathodes of all types of lithium-ion batteries that power EVs. Accordingly, the recent rise in EV adoption has sent lithium production to new highs.

The above infographic charts more than 25 years of lithium production by country from 1995 to 2021, based on data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

The Largest Lithium Producers Over Time

In the 1990s, the U.S. was the largest producer of lithium, in stark contrast to the present.

In fact, the U.S. accounted for over one-third of global lithium production in 1995. From then onwards until 2010, Chile took over as the biggest producer with a production boom in the Salar de Atacama, one of the world’s richest lithium brine deposits.

Global lithium production surpassed 100,000 tonnes for the first time in 2021, quadrupling from 2010. What’s more, roughly 90% of it came from just three countries.

RankCountry2021 Production (tonnes)% of Total
#1Australia 🇦🇺55,41652%
#2Chile 🇨🇱26,00025%
#3China 🇨🇳14,00013%
#4Argentina 🇦🇷5,9676%
#5Brazil 🇧🇷1,5001%
#6Zimbabwe 🇿🇼1,2001%
#7Portugal 🇵🇹9001%
#8United States 🇺🇸9001%
Rest of World 🌍1020.1%

Australia alone produces 52% of the world’s lithium. Unlike Chile, where lithium is extracted from brines, Australian lithium comes from hard-rock mines for the mineral spodumene.

China, the third-largest producer, has a strong foothold in the lithium supply chain. Alongside developing domestic mines, Chinese companies have acquired around $5.6 billion worth of lithium assets in countries like Chile, Canada, and Australia over the last decade. It also hosts 60% of the world’s lithium refining capacity for batteries.

Batteries have been one of the primary drivers of the exponential increase in lithium production. But how much lithium do batteries use, and how much goes into other uses?

What is Lithium Used For?

While lithium is best known for its role in rechargeable batteries—and rightly so—it has many other important uses.

Before EVs and lithium-ion batteries transformed the demand for lithium, the metal’s end-uses looked completely different as compared to today.

End-useLithium Consumption 2010 (%)Lithium Consumption 2021 (%)
Ceramics and glass31%14%
Lubricating greases10%3%
Air treatment5%1%
Continuous casting4%2%

In 2010, ceramics and glass accounted for the largest share of lithium consumption at 31%. In ceramics and glassware, lithium carbonate increases strength and reduces thermal expansion, which is often essential for modern glass-ceramic cooktops.

Lithium is also used to make lubricant greases for the transport, steel, and aviation industries, along with other lesser-known uses.

The Future of Lithium Production

As the world produces more batteries and EVs, the demand for lithium is projected to reach 1.5 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) by 2025 and over 3 million tonnes by 2030.

For context, the world produced 540,000 tonnes of LCE in 2021. Based on the above demand projections, production needs to triple by 2025 and increase nearly six-fold by 2030.

Although supply has been on an exponential growth trajectory, it can take anywhere from six to more than 15 years for new lithium projects to come online. As a result, the lithium market is projected to be in a deficit for the next few years.

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