Here comes the sun!
Long gone are the days of bulky solar panels on rooftops that could - on good days - collect enough heat to lower your electricity bill enough that over the lifespan of your home they might pay for themselves. The capital costs per watt of useable energy has been tumbling with each generation of technological innovation.
As noted in a related article (Can Solar Become Cost Competitive?), the price of solar power is beginning to reach cost parity with conventional energy sources and many of the world’s biggest technology and manufacturing companies are moving into the burgeoning solar power sector.
The newer technologies employ thin-film photovoltaics that use far less material than traditional bulk-silicon cells, but can be laid down on flexible surfaces such as sheets of steel the thickness of a human hair, which gives them wider applications at lower costs.
As noted in the Economist, thin-film solar cells are still being packaged and sold as standard solar panels, but that could easily change. New more flexible and lightweight products eventually could be used as building materials in their own right. Imagine - buildings coated in solar collecting materials that generate enough energy to meet all the power needs of its occupants and has some to spare to sell back to the local energy utility.
Lawrence Solomon, executive director of Energy Probe, notes in a Financial Post article published on June 24, 2008, one company - Nanosolar Inc. of San Jose California - has taken the task of producing thin-film solar cells one step further by developing a printing press that applies nanoparticle ink to foil at the rate of 100 feet per minute and which can produce solar cells with a capacity of 1,000 MW per year, the equivalent of two nuclear reactors at Pickering outside Toronto.
Mr. Solomon is not a fan of new nuclear reactors, but his point is well taken. Nuclear reactors take a long time to build and in terms of up front capital costs, they are very expensive before delivering a single kilowatt-hour of energy.
Technology innovations such as Nanosolar’s printing press can generate power soon after the ink has dried, and a solar equivalent of a major nuclear plant could be up and running in one year.
This vision represents the ultimate in distributed energy systems - attractive, easy to use building products that blend into the architectural design of buildings (as opposed to ugly strap on solar panels on rooftops) that deliver energy to the max.
Those who can’t kick the grid habit also appreciate the enormous potential of solar panels by the square kilometer, or deserts filled with steel and glass mirrors that reflect sunlight to boil water to generate electricity that plugs into long-distance networks.
As engineers beaver away on innovations that will up the efficiency of energy conversion of solar power and lower the delivered price to the ultimate consumer, the world must go on and our dependence on fossil fuels and hydroelectricity will continue.
But as noted by solar innovator Nanosolar, energy should be clean, safe, affordable, and abundant and the path to grid-parity solar electricity exists through technology and innovation.
"In an age of carbon fuel scarcity and global warming, it is increasingly mandatory for electricity to be produced locally, cleanly, and in ways that minimize the peak-load burden on already overtaxed electricity grids," notes the company.
And by setting a new standard for solar technology efficiency and cost performance, Nanosolar plans on becoming the world’s largest solar energy technology company. It could happen.