There is so much available energy from the Sun but world still heavily relies on oil and other fossil fuels. With great available resources to help us really start depending on solar energy, like solar panels and even roman blinds, we need to rethink our way of living and exchange them for eco-friendly strategies. It is not just the factor of being eco-friendly that makes solar energy great, it is also a modern technology that looks cool and adds value to your home or business. Solar energy definitely has more than enough potential to satisfy global energy demand, and yet the nation still heavily relies on importing expensive foreign oil so it is really natural to ask yourself what is the logic behind this? There are several different factors that need to be considered when answering to this question.
The first thing we need to know is that solar energy sector is still relatively young in terms of development, and therefore still lacks the “proven technology” tag that oil and fossil fuels have. The young development in energy in most cases means that efficiency is low and costs are high, and this is exactly the summary of current story with solar energy technology.
The prices of solar energy technologies are constantly dropping but they haven’t still dropped enough to being able to compete with the costs of fossil fuels. Even total cost-competitiveness with fossil fuels wouldn’t be a total guarantee that solar energy would push fossil fuels out of the energy market because of powerful fossil fuels lobbies that use their influence to control politics in case of emergency.
High costs, early development phase, and lack of tradition are the main reasons why solar energy is many light years away from being competitive with fossil fuels. But there are some other factors that I should mention, most notably solar energy storage issue. Sun as you know doesn’t shine at night nor when it is cloudy or rain so what we need is adequate solar energy storage methods that would do the job in providing us with energy in these situations. Currently, there are many ongoing researches that tend to solve solar energy storage problem though but we are yet to see the really effective solution to this problem.
Photovoltaic cells are “devices that convert sunlight into electricity using the photoelectric effect”. Photovoltaic cells are also referred to as “solar cells”, and they are not brand new technology as some people think they are. In fact, first photovoltaic cell was constructed by Charles Fritts in the 1880s so we are definitely not talking about something that is brand new technology. The first significant application where solar cells were used was as a back-up power source to the Vanguard I satellite more than 50 years ago, back in 1958.
Photovoltaic cells are made of semiconducting materials similar to those used in computer chips. There are many different types of photovoltaic cells, and it is difficult to tell which technology will prevail at the end, among those that are currently mostly used are thin film, monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon, and amorphous cells.
Concentrating photovoltaics also belongs to new methods of electricity generation from the sun. Photovoltaic cells that are designed to operate with concentrated sunlight are built into concentrating collectors that use a lens to focus the sunlight onto the cells. This is not the ideal solution because the lenses must be pointed at the sun so the efficient use of concentrating collectors is really limited to the sunniest locations. But on the other hand concentrating photovoltaics have an edge when it comes to costs because they use very little expensive semiconducting materials.
Solar cells despite obvious technological development in the last few decades still haven’t reached the levels of high efficiency. An average photovoltaic cell has an efficiency of 15%, which means that less than one-sixth of the sunlight striking the cell actually generates electricity. The low efficiency of commercial solar cells is the main reason why solar panels are still connected with high costs because in order to achieve the desired efficiency you need larger arrays.
Therefore, if solar energy wants to become competitive with fossil fuels it will have to produce inexpensive and highly efficient photovoltaic cells. Some of the latest research work was really positive, and this should give us hope that science is ready to come up with some breakthrough discovery that would make solar cells cheaper and much more efficient.
Why isn’t world using more solar energy?
Using more solar energy to cut our dependence on fossil fuels, and improve our energy security and energy independence seems like a very logical solution, especially since the Sun is the most abundant source of energy on our planet. Solar energy can provide us with over 1000 times more energy than we currently need but despite this enormous potential, in 2008 solar power accounted for miserable 0.02% of the world’s total energy supply.
There are several reasons why world isn’t using more solar energy to satisfy its huge energy demand. When talking about solar power technologies we need to know that these technologies are still in the very early phase of development, which explains why solar power still fails to achieve efficiency comparable with fossil fuels. An average solar panel has an efficiency of around 15 percent, which means that large amount of solar energy gets wasted, and ends up like a heat instead being turned into some form of useful energy.
Improving efficiency of solar cells won’t mean much unless science also finds the solution on how to make solar panels cheaper. The only way solar power can really prosper in years to come is by finding highly efficient solar panels that would also be commercially viable. This is by all means a difficult task for science, but several latest researches have given us at least some hope that finding this solution isn’t a mission impossible.
There is also one other issue that solar energy sector will need to resolve, namely the intermittency issue. Solar energy is an intermittent energy source because Sun doesn’t shine all the time which means that solar energy is not continually available throughout the whole day. In order to tackle the intermittency issue solar energy (again) needs science to find some cheap solar energy storage solution. Using molten salts as the storage medium has so far proved to be quite effective, and many energy experts have great expectation of this solar energy storage method.
Solar power will also need to have strong political support, and big funding to become dominant energy source in years to come. Powerful fossil fuel lobbies will no doubt use their huge political influence to slow down the development of solar power technologies as much as possible because they are well aware that once science presents cheap and efficient solar panels, they will lose their last big advantage over solar power, the cost-competitiveness.
The future of solar power depends heavily on science but politics cannot be overlooked because science needs large funds to continue with researches, and these funds can not be obtained without the strong political support. Solar power has currently strong public support which should result in favorable politics toward further development of solar power technologies in years to come. Doing otherwise would mean fewer votes on elections, and this is something politicians will try to avoid at almost any cost.
The good news is that solar energy sector is constantly developing and improving, lowering prices and improving efficiency but the bad news is that this tempo in development, despite being overall positive, won’t be enough to significantly reduce the global strength of fossil fuels in the next couple of decades.
Slowly but surely looks to be the current motto of global solar energy sector, and with the vast abundance of solar energy I really do not see any reason that would prevent solar energy from becoming dominant energy source in years to come. Solar energy may be struggling now but is likely to dominate in future unlike oil that is dominating now but will run out in future.
The correlation of science, adequate funding and strong political support should in years to come turn solar energy into one of the world’s most widely used energy sources.