(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
LITTLETON, Colorado - China is by far the number one global solar power producer in terms of installed capacity, but is 150th on the list of nations ranked by the World Bank in terms of photovoltaic (PV) power potential.
The practical PV potential metric is a measurement of the power output achievable by a typical utility-scale PV system (PVOUT), taking into account local land use constraints and the amount of solar radiation available to generate power.
As such, the PVOUT metric is able to assess how much solar power can be generated across different countries, even in locations that currently have little to no solar power installations at all.
According to the Global Solar Atlas, "the PVOUT represents the amount of power generated per unit of the installed PV capacity over the long-term, and is measured in kilowatthours per installed kilowatt-peak of the system capacity (kWh/kWp)."
When ranked in terms of this potential output, some nations that currently do not even register on lists of major solar power producers come out on top, while several countries that currently host major solar installations are revealed to be far less suited to solar production than other nations.
Namibia has the highest overall global PV output potential, according to the World Bank's ranking, with an nationwide average PVOUT measurement of 5.38 kWh/kWp/day.
Year-round sunshine for roughly 10 hours a day combined with abundant useable land areas place Namibia ahead of all other nations in terms of solar power potential, with its PVOUT measurement coming in close to 40% higher than that of China, the current top solar leader.
Egypt, Botswana, Morocco and Sudan also feature in the global PVOUT top 20, thanks to similar solar radiation totals and land availability, suggesting African nations could come to dominate global solar production rankings if all the region's ambitious renewable energy development plans take root.
MIDDLE EAST CONTENDERS
Thanks to similarly high amounts of solar radiation and large swaths of usable land, several Middle East countries also place highly on PVOUT potential despite current low levels of solar installations.
Jordan, Yemen and Oman are the top three MidEast nations in terms of PVOUT, followed by Saudi Arabia.
Large investments in green energy infrastructure throughout the Middle East mean the region will soon realise much of that latent solar potential, which should help the area's economies continue to grow despite the uncertainty tied to the outlook for oil and gas exports from the same region.
China's relatively lowly ranking on the PVOUT scale might suggest the country is not well suited to solar production.
But as the PVOUT measurement is a nationwide average, low measurements from congested and cloudy areas in the north and east tend to offset the higher readings from the sunny and spacious western hubs where the country has developed its world-leading expertise in the solar space.
Even so, China's overall PVOUT reading of 3.88 kWh/kWp/day is well below the national averages of other countries in Asia, including dry and sunny Mongolia (4.76 PVOUT measurement), India (4.32) and Afghanistan (5.02), the region's top overall PVOUT potential leader.
Nearly all countries in Asia are expected to accelerate the roll out of solar power in the decades ahead, but China looks set to remain the overall leader in terms of sheer scale thanks to generous state-funded subsidies and plans to steadily rebalance the country's energy system away from fossil fuels.
While Germany is the top current solar producer in Europe, Spain has the region's highest PVOUT reading thanks to year-round sunshine and suitable space for solar farm installations.
As a result, the country is likely to sharply increase installed solar capacity, which in 2022 was roughly a third of Germany's.
Portugal and Turkey also rank in the top 100 PVOUT list, compared to Germany's ran of 196.
Within the Americas, Chile has by far the top overall PVOUT reading, and ranks second globally thanks to concentrations of bright sunshine and suitable space for utility-scale installations.
Bolivia, Peru and Mexico also score in the global top 30, while the United States ranks 90th but has favourable solar potential pockets in the Southwest that are comparable to other high-scoring areas elsewhere.
Altogether, the PVOUT metric highlights the vast potential for solar power in all regions, especially in areas that currently lag global leaders but have the right combination of abundant sunshine and space to potentially emerge as the new global solar leaders in the coming decades.
(Reporting by Gavin Maguire; Editing by Stephen Coates)