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Solar powered cynicism, but the stuff still works!

Solar powered cynicism, but the stuff still works!

Dr Jon Major takes an in-depth view of solar power, and how this evolving and still very relevant technology can make a significant impact on our planetary power needs.

There was a time when solar panels were treated with suspicion. They were viewed as the preserve of eco-warriors, calculators and smug self-builders on grand designs. They were never considered as a truly viable source of power. In only a few years however, we saw the technology steer from suspicion to near banality in the common consciousness. For one thing, the occurrence of the solar feed-in tariff, led to a glut of profiteering companies offering to install panels for free as long as they keep the lovely feed-in cash accrued, and thus the cynicism began to set in.

Partly as a result, solar is now no longer seen as cutting edge technology, no longer exciting or exotic. For most people solar panels now sit somewhere between loft insulation and double glazing, rather than being viewed as the incredible piece of technology they are. I mean, let’s face it, no-one ever cold calls you about free hover-boards or jet-packs!

And so unfortunately because of the collective loss of wonder around the technology, some of the questions that should be asked, aren’t being asked. Questions such as “hang on, if these things work, then why are we still digging up old bits of dinosaur to burn?” The answer to this is complex, but as with 99% of life’s other problems it’s mostly about money (in case you’re wondering the remaining 1% of life’s problems are about football).

Solar panels do work, this is quite a key point, they convert sunlight directly into electricity with no middle man and no need for any form of smokey mother-earth kicking combustion.  They do however cost slightly more to generate this power than the traditional polar bear bothering alternatives. Now when I say slightly, I do mean slightly. The cost of power generated by solar is less than a quarter of what it was a decade ago, and the cost per watt will be equivalent to fossil fuel generate power within the next few years, if it isn’t already (there is some debate about this). The problem that solar suffers from is the need for initial capital investment to buy the panels – this cost currently runs into thousands of pounds, and the vast majority of us cannot really afford to shell out for our next 20 years of power in advance.

This is why the feed in tariff was so key to the growth in solar power. It either offered people a return on their investment, or motivated companies to provide the panels for free to consumers.

One quick question then, can anyone tell me why a UK government committed to a renewable mandate, are about to cut the solar feed-in tariff, while at the same time, we are the only G7 nation to increase fossil fuel subsidies and are paying China a fortune to build nuclear reactors for us?

This isn’t a rhetorical question by the way, I genuinely have no idea. Answers on the back of a postcard to the usual address, or just call me an idiot in the comments.

Personal grumblings aside, many have taken the removal of the feed-in tariff to be the death knell for solar power, but this is far from true. The reliance on a feed in tariff model was always known to be problematic, and that its removal would always come sooner rather than later. Unlike fossil fuels or nuclear, solar doesn’t have a strong lobbying wing to help maintain subsidies (I’ll stop moaning now I promise). The solution for solar is the same as the problem though: money.

The cost of solar will continue to come down, while the cost of fossil fuels will at best remain steady and more likely increase. At a certain point in the not too distant future a crossover will be reached at which solar becomes cheaper and supporting it becomes even more of a no-brainer than it should be already. At that point a move towards large scale solar power installations is likely to begin to support the current personal power generation model.

The continued cost reduction of solar is also not pie in the sky wishful thinking on my part, but is rather based on ongoing technological development. This a common occurrence we’re accustomed to with, for example, personal electronics, but not one we’re used to seeing with power generation.

(When I was younger my dad paid a small fortune for an enormous TV that took up half the front room. Twenty (or so) years on, you can get an LED TV with WiFi built in for a third of the cost!)

The technology of solar panels is similarly not static, and the current generation of solar panels are somewhat old-skool. The vast majority being produced are still based on silicon, just like the very first solar panel unveiled by Bell labs over 60 years ago. A new generation of solar panels are now coming through which have the ability to drastically reduce the PV cost. These so called “second generation” technologies are based on thin-film materials which absorb the same amount of light as silicon but with 1% of the thickness and using lower cost fabrication processes. These utilise materials such as cadmium telluride or copper indium gallium diselenide, CIGS for short, and are in mass production already.

One of the world largest solar manufacturers, First Solar, are producing cadmium telluride panels on a huge scale. You may also have seen recently that IKEA are selling suspiciously cheap solar panels. The reason for their cheapness isn’t based around the typical “Allen key required” IKEA narrative, but rather that these panels are a thin-film technology.

These are by no means the end point either, there are numerous 3rd generation technologies being developed ranging from cells which incorporate nanowire structures, to solar cells which can be deposited from a spray. This is not to say that the standard silicon panels will be completely obsolete either – their price is also dropping, and they are proven to work long-term, but rather to emphasize there is a progression and diversification in the technology that will continue to drive down the cost.

Now before you start grumbling that I’m looking through overly rose tinted glasses on this subject, I’m clearly a big promoter of solar power but I’m also a realist. Solar obviously has its problems – night-time for example – and it will likely only ever be one component of the future energy mix, rather than a sole solution.

What solar does have though is unmatched potential to make a massive contribution to a low carbon future and as a result, is one of the technologies that people should get behind in a big way. Unlike fossil fuels there’s no downside to it, and when it comes to climate change issues, we really are all in this together.

There is a huge research community in both universities and industrial labs around the globe working on the next generation of solar cells, that will provide cheaper power and eventually render the end of the feed-in tariff an irrelevance.

Technology develops, it improves in quality and comes down in cost – we’ve seen it in other technologies, and solar is no exception. Be assured, the future remains bright for solar, despite what you may have heard.


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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