Until recently, solar has been a lesser player in the renewable energy revolution, unable to compete with hydro and wind power. Its growth was limited to a handful of (mostly) European markets that were willing to offer some type of financial support for the more expensive technology.

In the last few years, however, the global solar market has experienced a boom as installation costs fall to historic lows and new growth markets emerge, most notably in Asia.

The total installed capacity of photovoltaic (PV) systems, the most widespread solar technology, expanded nearly eightfold over the last five years, according to the IEA's figures for 2014. Last year, the PV industry grew 28% to 177GW of operating capacity, despite slowdowns and challenges in several major markets.

The solar sector contributed 55% of the US$270 billion in new investments by the renewable energy industry during 2014, according to data compiled by the UNEP and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The booming Chinese and Japanese solar industries were important contributors to the first increase in annual spending on renewables in the last three years.

Latin America remains a minor market for solar, compared to the US, Europe and Asia. The region only this year surpassed the 1GW mark for installed solar capacity - this, within a market that, for all of its recent growth, supplied just 1% of global electricity output during 2014.

But these figures obscure a far more interesting story. Latin America has been one of the fastest-growing regions for solar over the last couple of years (albeit starting from a much lower base).

Major players in the industry are eyeing or breaking ground on projects in the region, which boasts tremendous solar resources and attractive electricity prices. Although they generally shy from the level of subsidization common in other regions, many Latin American governments are nonetheless eager to promote renewable energy.

Several countries have accumulated large pipelines of solar projects in various stages of development. Furthermore, in the last year, developers have successfully bid on supply contracts in competitive auctions, an important milestone for utility-scale solar farms in the region.

Figure: Growth of Solar


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