Solar PV vs Solar Thermal/CSP: Comparison

This is a comparison guide on Solar PV (photovoltaic) vs Solar Thermal (CSP – Concentrating Solar Power) Energy.

We look at what each of these types of solar technology are, their differences, and examples of each in terms of solar projects and operational solar farms worldwide.


Summary – Solar PV vs Solar Thermal/CSP

Solar PV (used for electricity) and Solar CSP (used for electricity, or heating water) are different solar technologies

Each can be used on a large utility scale (big solar farms with hundreds or thousands of panels that produce electricity for utilities), or on a distributed residential scale (for individual households, buildings and locations)

Solar PV (photovoltaic) currently leads Solar Thermal/CSP by a very wide margin in terms of annual investment of money, annual and total installed capacity, electricity generation, and electricity consumption

This trend (of PV outpacing CSP) is only expected to continue into the future with continued investment in and expansion of Solar PV projects.

Although, solar CSP is still expected to grow into the future

Despite Solar PV’s popularity, Solar CSP has a few small advantages (dispatchability, and generating electricity while the sun is down) over Solar PV


What Is Solar PV

A solar panel made up of solar cells that converts sun light energy into electricity



Solar PV can be utility scale (solar farms), or distributed (usually rooftop installations and other standalone solar cells that help stabilise or support a power system in the event of power disruptions, blackouts etc.).


How Solar PV Works

Sunlight (light photons) hits the solar cells on a solar panel

The solar cells convert sunlight into DC electricity

DC electricity is fed to the inverter (might be a string inverter or a microinverter) that turns DC energy into AC electricity

This AC electricity can be used directly or stored in a battery for later use



What Is Solar Thermal/CSP

The use of the Sun’s thermal energy to generate electricity or heat water


There’s several different types of Solar Thermal plants such as Linear Fresnel, Tower, Dish and Trough (


How Solar Thermal/CSP Works

Solar CSP uses mirrors (lenses and reflectors) to capture the Sun’s thermal energy (infrared radiation) to heat a (thermodynamic) liquid or an oil, create steam, drive a heat engine/generator, and generate electricity

Solar CSP can also be used for heating and desalinating water

–,, and


Global Installed Capacity, Production & Consumption Of Solar Energy

Worldwide, solar energy installed capacity, production and consumption stats are:

At the end of 2018, solar as a whole made up 20% of installed capacity for renewables

At the end of 2018, solar PV made up 2.4% of total global electricity production

At the end of 2016, solar was the third most consumed renewable energy source for electricity


Between 2012 to 2018, solar PV led all renewables in annual additional installed capacity by a wide margin (55% alone in 2018), followed by wind energy, hydropower, and all other renewables as a group behind that (including solar CSP/thermal)

Solar thermal/CSP made up 0.4% of total global electricity production in 2018 along with other renewables like geothermal and ocean power



In 2017, solar PV and solar thermal were both responsible for 4% each of renewable energy consumption worldwide



Solar PV vs Solar CSP Installed Capacity

In 2018, global Solar PV installed capacity was 480,357 MW, and Solar CSP was 5,469 MW



Solar PV vs Solar CSP Electricity Generation

In 2016, Solar PV electricity generation was 317,613 GWh, and Solar CSP was 11,037 GWh



Solar PV vs Solar Thermal – Differences, Cost, Efficiency & More

Solar PV and Solar Thermal are both used on the large utility scale, and on the smaller distributed/individual scale.

Cost, efficiency, and other variables can differ depending on the scale they are used.

Apart from the obvious differences of investment, installed capacity, electricity generation and electricity consumption, and how they actually work (light energy vs heat energy), some of the key differences at the utility/large scale are:


[solar CSP] provides a dispatchable energy supply – that is, their power output can be adjusted based on grid demand.

This makes them more flexible than traditional solar PV plants.



One of the main advantages of a CSP power plant over a solar PV power plant is that it can be equipped with molten salts in which heat can be stored, allowing electricity to be generated after the sun has set.



Overall, CSP on the utility scale probably faces more barriers and challenges than Solar PV which is far more widely used.


On a household and individual level, mentions some of the cost, efficiency, flexibility and other differences between the two technologies at

For example, solar thermal is usually used for heating water on homes, whereas panels might be used for electricity.


Investment In Solar Energy

In 2016, solar and wind energy by far had the most investment money on a global level compared to other renewable energy sources.


Future Of Solar Energy (Solar PV & Solar CSP)

By 2023, solar PV is expected to grow to 8% of renewable energy consumption worldwide, whilst solar thermal is expected to stay the same at 4%



[there is expected to be] a 46% growth over the period 2018 to 2023 in renewable energy as a whole … with solar PV accounting for more than half of this expansion [and, supportive government policies and market improvements are some of the main causes]

Utility-scale projects represent 55% of this growth

China alone accounts for almost 45% of global solar PV expansion

CSP is expected to grow 87% (4.3 GW) over the forecast period, 32% more than in 2012‑17

[some of the barriers facing CSP expansion individually are] technology risk, restricted access to financing, long project lead-times, and market designs that do not value storage continue to challenge CSP deployment



Examples Of Solar PV & Solar Thermal Worldwide – Largest Solar Farms, & Countries With The Most Solar PV & Solar CSP

You can view lists of the largest solar PV and solar thermal power stations at:



Countries with the highest installed capacity:

In 2018, China, Europe, the US, Japan and Germany had the highest installed capacities of Solar PV in MW.

In 2016, Spain and the US easily had the highest installed capacities of Solar CSP in MW.



















1 thought on “Solar PV vs Solar Thermal/CSP: Comparison”

  1. I don’t buy the argument that only CSP can store thermal energy. The truth is that regardless whether a CSP or PV system is used to capture the solar energy, in both cases energy could be stored as thermal energy (molten salts or whatever material is chosen). I note it would be foolish to do this from PV if the intended end use is electricity however if the intended end use is thermal (eg defray gas-fired DHW, space heat, process heat) then thermal storage may be cheaper than battery storage for PV.


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