Solar: Plug into the Power of the Future

February 6, 2015

Solar Panels - Ben & Jerry's

It’s hard to believe, but the silicon-based solar panels popping up all over the globe have been around since the 1950’s. Back then, the cells cost almost 300 dollars per watt, and only reached efficiencies of up to 6%. Now, solar power is a major part of the mix for countries like Germany, which is making the push to power up with more renewables than any other source. In 2014 alone, global investment in solar energy saw a 25% uptick, while US utility-scale solar electricity generation saw a whopping 100% bump. The growth is showing no signs of slowing either, with experts predicting even more widespread use of solar panels in 2015 — not surprising given recent innovations that are making the tech even more flexible, efficient and affordable.

Affordable as Power from the Grid

A recent Deutsche Bank report summed up the state of things, predicting that solar power will be on par with conventional power grid costs in nearly every U.S. state by 2016. That’s assuming the U.S. keeps a 30% tax credit on system costs, a credit that is set to expire in 2016. But, even if the credit drops to 10%, 36 states will be able to tap solar at the same price as conventional electricity. A recent estimate from the International Energy Agency predicts solar as the world’s biggest source of electricity by 2050. Why is that? Solar is a technology, and like most technologies, it is becoming cheaper and more efficient over time. Compare this to the likes of fossil fuels, which become more costly to extract as their finite resources are depleted. That is just one reason why there are now as many solar jobs as coal jobs in the US, a labor sector that is primed to get even bigger.

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Efficiency that Keeps Advancing

The sun provides more energy to our planet in one hour than all the energy we use globally in a year. That simple and stunning fact is behind the most recent pushes to get the most out of each solar cell, or photovoltaic (PV) panel. A solar research team in Australia recently achieved a record 40% efficiency rate during a field test using off the shelf solar cells combined with focused sunlight and efficiency advancements. This bump in efficiency will be especially useful for the Australian-designed “solar towers” that collect and concentrate the sun’s energy for maximum power output. Meanwhile, a German team has set a new record for solar panel efficiency in a laboratory— squeezing 46% of collected light into electricity. Currently the standard method for building and deploying solar cells yields about 33% efficiency, which is already a huge step forward over the 6% efficiency of the first silicon solar cells. Maximizing the output of solar cells is all part of driving down cost and boosting the effectiveness of harnessing the sun’s energy.

Solar: Where it’s Winter 10 Months of the Year

You might not expect a solar farm in a state where the leaves fall and don’t come back for 7-8 months, but studies have already shown that cold temperatures and high altitudes can actually be beneficial for solar power, and other research is currently being conducted on whether snow’s natural solar reflectivity can boost output. Is it any wonder then that Vermont has become a PV hotbed? 2013 saw a 35% uptick in Vermont’s solar installations, netting a total generation of 39 megawatts. That number is only set to increase in 2015 as an essential part of the state’s aggressive goal to get 90% of its energy from renewables by 2050. Over in Minnesota, which can rightfully claim to be even colder than Vermont, state officials are looking to get contractor proposals to put solar on the public rights-of-ways that line the state’s highways. These little used strips of land are ripe for posting up with solar power, and are another sign that solar can work just about anywhere.

Electricity Everywhere

Taking that concept even further, the Netherlands has recently opened up the first-ever solar bike path project. It’s small in scale (for now), but will prove out a concept that could open up the next frontier of solar power— installation into novel and high-use materials that could turn urban and rural surface area into electricity generating assets. Already, the efforts of a pair of Idaho inventors have heeded the call for a durable, replaceable solar material that we can drive on. The possibilities of this application have generated a ton of buzz with this, frankly, freakin’ amazing video.

On a more horizontal plane, companies like CSEM are releasing colored solar panels, with aesthetics and design that allow them to built right into new construction in place of traditional siding. This solar technology, called building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) is more expensive than the steadily dropping prices of conventional PV. But since BIPV replaces conventional siding materials, instead of installing over existing or newly built siding, offsetting the material cost reduces the overall cost of the panels. Solar on roads and solar on walls has the potential to revolutionize the potential for how and where we get power. Look for more progress in this field soon.

As fossil fuels come under increased scrutiny, most recently by the negotiators at the Peru UN Climate Change Conference, we’ve got high hopes for capturing the power of the sun around the world. Already, China has installed more solar power in 2014 than the US, ever, while India’s National Plan on Climate Change calls for 100 gigawatts of solar power by 2022. Back in the states, we’re hoping that if solar costs the same as outdated electricity sources, more and more Americans will choose to plug into the sun rather than a coal plant. Check out if you’re in Vermont, and for the rest of the U.S. to find out how you can install your own panels right at home.