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Solar power : Can the sun set us free?

Solar power : Can the sun set us free?

Christopher Emmott provides a succinct overview of our growing use of solar power in this informative summary.

Solar energy is rapidly becoming a mainstream technology across the world. The cost of photovoltaics, which create electricity from the sun, have dropped dramatically in recent years. In Germany, more than 1.5 million solar installations can be seen on roofs and sites across the country, supplying more than 6% of their electricity needs, whilst India has committed to constructing 100 GW of solar power by 2022, almost half as much capacity as the whole of the Indian grid today. Here in the UK, there are now over three quarter of a million solar projects, with around half of this capacity on the roofs of the nation’s homes and businesses, pumping clean electricity into our grid.

However, the distributed nature of these renewable energy technologies poses a challenge for the energy industry. Instead of simply consuming energy, individuals and companies are now starting to produce it as well, creating nations of prosumers.  This is forcing electricity companies to learn to cope with large amounts of energy being fed into the edges of their grid, in addition to receiving less income from those who can now use their own solar power.

Yet even greater challenges lie ahead. The rise of the electric car, and the resulting innovation in energy storage technologies, means that batteries are becoming ever cheaper. For those with solar on their roof, this offers new opportunities for capturing value from harvesting the sun. Companies from Tesla to Bosch, and a number of innovative UK start-ups such as PowerVault and Moixa Technologies, have begun encouraging people to add batteries to their solar systems, allowing them to use more of the solar power coming from their roofs, and breaking free of the electricity grid. This will bring huge changes to our energy system?

In Australia, analysts are predicting that such solar-battery combinations will reach as many as half of all homes in Australia by 2018. Such technology will allow households to use batteries to shift the energy generated by their rooftop solar panels to power their evening needs. With substantial amounts of sun year round, this could mean millions of homes being almost completely reliant on their own electricity production, rarely exporting or importing electricity from the national grid. However, to go entirely off-grid would require households to closely match their usage to the fluctuations of the weather, and accept the occasional black-out on dark winter days, a prospect that seems unlikely after being used to power-on-tap whenever it’s desired. But can we still rely on a national infrastructure that people are no longer paying for?

In other parts of the world, UK innovation is using similar technology to bring electricity to people across Africa for whom electric light has never before been available. Companies such as Azuri Technologies, BBOXX and MeshPower are using UK expertise to develop new business models to bring solar electricity to rural communities across Sub-Saharan Africa, without the need for a national grid. These companies are using innovative monitoring and payment technology to allow them to finance the solar panels, batteries and highly efficient appliances (such as LED lights), providing an affordable off-grid energy service to some of the world’s poorest communities, without building expensive new infrastructure.

But back in the UK, short, dark winter days mean that solar and storage technology will never be able to supply all our needs. Solar panels operating under cloudy December skies will always struggle to power our energy hungry homes, and so we will forever be forced to rely on a larger grid, bringing us power from wind farms and power plants capturing energy from across the country. However, batteries in people’s homes will certainly mean that those who sell us energy are going to have to start rethinking their business models, and work to assist, rather than resist, the sun from setting us free.

21st Century Stats

Originally launched: 1999.

Relaunched: January 1st, 2016.

Contributors: 70 contributors including futurists, engineers, teachers, writers, 23 doctors and 7 professors.

Created by: Clifford White.

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