The impacts of climate change are being felt worldwide. Global politics has begun to shift its priorities to a sustainable, greener economy; growth in the renewable energy sector has been exponential. With the heat of the sun’s rays being an essentially free form of energy that negates the need to produce greenhouse gases to fuel modern lifestyle – solar power is the way of the future. However, many questions remain including how soon solar will begin to become common place and whether it is the most viable option in the first place.
Solar power offers the potential for consumers to go off the grid, to theoretically never pay an electricity bill again. Naturally this is not a situation that utility industries desire – there is significant money to be made in powering everyone’s air conditioning. Both energy producers and governments are consistently on the back foot when it comes to renewable technologies and private technological research is quickly leaving the rest behind as consumers continue to move off the grid.
Self-Sufficiency and the Beginning of “Private” Energy Hubs
The most common form of solar power for individuals is the Photo-Voltaic (PV) cell. These flat solar PV cells convert energy from sunlight into direct current (DC) energy which is then passed through an inverter which changes the DC energy into alternating current (AC) electricity for use in the home. Most consumers will opt for the grid-connected system which means in many countries that they can be paid for the excess electricity they produce. Typically, in this system it will take anywhere between 4 to 10 years for a full return on your investment – this comes from a combination of savings on your electricity bills and refunds from electricity companies. Your other option is to invest in a battery system like Tesla’s Powerwall. With a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for load-shifting, backup power and self-consumption this technology is fast becoming an affordable long-term investment in moving your household entirely off the energy grid and minimising your carbon footprint. This is not to say it does not have it’s drawbacks. Realistically, the sun only shine for roughly 12 hours of the day and at times of peak energy consumption you can’t rely on you solar panels to power the house. Another sticking point is the price – costing roughly US$3000 for the unit. Looking at the broad scale though, such technologies ultimately pay for themselves, and are perhaps a necessary investment for a smaller carbon footprint.
Why won’t we make the switch?
Whilst solar energy has been around for decades now, the uptake of the technology by private consumers has been slow. Despite long-term economic incentives, many people either do not understand or are misled on the benefits of the industry. For example, many claim that solar providers are exaggerating on the amount of energy their systems can produce for your household. Recent innovations have sought to address these concerns such as Google’s latest software innovation – Project Sunroof. Sunroof utilises data from the Google Maps platform, and, through 3D-modelling, it can calculate the amount of space a building’s roof has for solar panels. The company aims to break up the daunting task of solar installation into easily understandable chunks as a part of the landmark project. Sunroof will be able to analyse the position of the sun throughout the course of the year, typical cloud cover, temperature, and the amount of shade cast by nearby objects. Armed with detailed and easily accessible information regarding solar yield as well as how much money they could save, it looks to be the answer to many consumers’ prayers for independent, straightforward information on harnessing the power of the sun. It also prevents consumers being tricked by suppliers into making the wrong investment. While solar power is the way forward for many, others will not be so lucky but this service creates a trustworthy platform on which to base important decisions, legitimising the market. Currently only available for residents in Boston, San Francisco and Fresno hopefully Google will roll-out the service globally over the coming years.
Another common argument against solar panels is their inefficiency. That is, your average run-of-the-mill crystalline silicon solar cell can only convert sunlight to electricity at a rate of 25 percent in ideal conditions. However, with developing research this conversion rate is consistently being raised. At the University of New South Wales, Australia solar researchers were able to convert over 40% of the sunlight hitting a system into electricity. They achieved this by using average, commercial solar cells but utilizing new techniques that have the potential to impact the entire solar industry.
Innovation and Change
The typical, bulky solar panel may soon be a thing of the past as technologies such as solar paint, thin-film solar cells and black-silicon solar cells are coming close to matching the efficiency of the common crystalline-silicon cells. Most are reaching a conversion rate of up to 20-22 percent. The potential for these technologies, particularly solar paint, are huge as they open up doors for consumers that may have been deterred by solar panels for reasons such as roof location, aesthetic appearance, installation requirements and cost of materials. These technologies provide the opportunity to truly integrate solar power into the building itself – rather than simply being an add on.
New Frontiers for Solar Energy
Photo-Voltaic cells are not the only way we can harness the sun’s energy. Solar thermal plants are being rolled out on a mass scale in many areas of the world. Using the same process as a conventional steam or gas turbine plants, sunlight is magnified to heat liquid that creates the steam that moves a turbine, generating electricity. The best metaphor for this process is imagining using a magnifying glass to concentrate sunlight on a metal straw full of water. But instead of the three to five ‘suns’ that a magnifying glass can concentrate to start a fire; a solar thermal ‘trough’ will produce a concentration ratio of 60 to one, that’s 60 suns worth. While this technology has been used in hybrid-systems along with fuels such as natural gas for decades, large-scale thermal only plants are coming on line. The most impressive of these is the 1 GW thermal enhanced oil recovery project in Oman which is claiming to cost only US$600 million to build and will produce steam on a massive scale at about half the cost of natural gas.
Solar energy is also finding other avenues for use in areas such as fuel production. Researchers from Australia’s Monash University have utilised solar cells to imitate photosynthesis for a device that splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen with world record efficiency. This has enormous potential as explained by co-author of the work, Professor Doug MacFarlane:
“Hydrogen can be used to generate electricity directly in fuels cells. Cars driven by fuel cell electric engines are becoming available from a number of car manufacturers. Hydrogen could even be used as an inexpensive energy storage technology at the household level to store energy from roof-top solar cells.”
If what Professor Macfarlane says is the case, the potential for households to withdraw from the power grid is increasing.
Moving Beyond the Conventional
Of course, solar technology isn’t stopping on roofs– one of the most extensive sun-exposed, flat surfaces on the planet are our roads. In the Netherlands they’re beginning to be utilised as well. Last year a 70 metre bike path in Krommenie, a town north of Amsterdam, was converted to be the world’s first solar road and six months on, the system is working even better than expected. Sandwiched between glass, silicone, rubber and concrete, solar panels line the path which is strong enough to support a 12 tonne fire truck without any damage. Each panel connects to metres that are designed to optimise their output and the electricity they generate is fed right into the street lighting or the grid. Over the first six months of the trial the path produced 3,000 kWh of energy – enough to power a small household for a year. Having the panels individualised also means that if one breaks, only that one will need to be repaired.
The potential for this kind of technology is exceptional – our roads could generate sufficient electricity to power local households or even electric vehicle refuel stations. Local councils throughout the Netherlands are looking to harness the technology and a similar agreement has been signed across the ocean in California.
Solar power is moving beyond our roof tops. With solar powered cars becoming increasingly refined and solar powered planes smashing records for flight times, the sun’s energy is being harnessed in increasingly creative ways. There are still significant hurdles though, with extensive mineral extraction necessary to supplement any such switch as well as cost and the problem of energy storage. However, as momentum driven by soaring profits grows, these problems are being addressed by researchers and technological innovators.
The solar revolution is well on its way to becoming a part of everyday life and it’s the technological private sector, not governmental and transnational institutions or mega energy companies; that is leading the way.
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