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7 Game-Changing Solar Developments: The Future of Energy?

By Yani Smith
Posted Mar 28, 2012 in Environment
In just 15 minutes, enough sun energy strikes the earth to meet the world’s energy needs for one year.
At a time when the major concern is global warming and reducing reliance on fossil-fuel energy, it’s reasonable to ask WHY aren’t we doing more to tap clean energy sources like wind and solar.
The simple answer is economics. The situation is that a kilowatt of electricity from solar currently costs around three to five times a kilowatt of conventional energy (varies depending on location and many other factors).
However, the solar industry has boomed over the last ten years, with major technological innovations and market-forces making solar increasingly popular.
Adding the right support and customer conditions into the mix can create an enormous opportunity for solar to become a practical, economic, and majorly beneficial energy source.
Below we’ll explore seven recent advances making solar significantly more feasible today.
Government Subsidies and Incentives
Governmental subsidies, tax cuts and other incentives have made solar energy projects more feasible. In the United States, governmental subsidies alone can reduce the cost of a solar system from 10% to 60% - significantly lowering the customer-cost of electricity generated.
The stabilization of costs through initiatives like Feed in Tariffs have made solar more attractive to investors as they can be certain of returns.
However, Spain offers a warning of how subsidies can go wrong if mismanaged or the level of commitment can't ride out the global financial crises. Furthermore, such "stop-and-go" support can damage public confidence in the technology.
Drop in Solar Panel Costs
Cost has always been achilles heel of solar, until recently.
Rapid advances in solar energy technology and manufacturing capabilities have triggered a major drop in the price of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.
A National Renewable Energy Laboratory report, which looked at 59,000 solar installations, put the 2009 solar panel costs at between $0.28 and $0.46 per kilowatt hour - before government incentives. The study uses 2009 data as data from later years cannot be adequately assessed yet. According to a recent Bloomberg report, the cost of solar panels has dropped a further 80% since then.
These kinds of cost reductions will make it possible for more people to afford solar panels.
Factors such as the rising cost of fossil fuels and expected emissions trading taxes indicate the cost of electricity generated from solar panels will become even more competitive in the coming years.
Low Interest Bank Loans for Solar Projects
As with most renewable energy systems, the bulk of the investment for a solar energy system is required at the beginning of the project.
This usually locks out a large proportion of domestic users.
Some banks have joined forces with energy development agencies to create low interest start up loans. These loans can amount up to $20,000 with 10 year terms.
The Kyoto Protocol
Although its success is a matter of debate, the Kyoto Protocol has changed the face of the global renewable energy industry.
The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement including 194 states, outlining targets to reduce green house gas (GHG) emissions.
The Kyoto Protocol was followed by COP 17 negotiations in December 2011, at Durban. In Durban, some member states agreed to ratify targets into law, however some major member states failed to commit.
Impacts of such inter-governmental negotiations include positioning renewable energies higher on government priority lists - leading to energy policies such as Feed in Tariffs - as well as triggering executive and public discussion on renewable energy issues.
Improved Solar Power Efficiency
The efficiency of solar panels has for a long time been a huge obstacle for investment. This essentially means the percentage of sun energy that a panel can convert into usable electricity.
Previous efficiencies below 15% have not been particularly attractive to investors.
Ongoing research and development has raised mainstream conversion efficiency levels to around 22% - making it a more enticing option.
Parallel Solar Innovations
The solar market-boom and predictions of the significance of solar in future energy structures have provided a good motivation and opportunity for developments in very different arms of solar technology.
Innovations such as triple-junction and concentrated solar energy systems have achieved prototype efficiencies of up to 43%.
Some of the major developments include:
- Double- and triple-junction solar panels, where multiple layers of solar conductors are laid on top of each other to conduct energy from a greater range on the light spectrum.
- Concentrated solar uses mirrors to concentrate solar energy on a smaller area of solar panel. This means that a greater volume of light energy can be radiated onto small areas of solar panel – maximising electricity generation while minimizing costs for expensive semi-conductor materials. Smaller semi-conductors also allow greater flexibility in upgrading semi-conductor material in the future – for example discarding silicon semi-conductors and replacing them with more efficient materials.
- Concentrated solar-thermal systems work in the same manner, however the concentrated sunlight is used to boil water in a central tower, which produces steam to spin turbines that produce electricity.
- Thin-film and amorphous solar cells work on a similar model to conventional solar panels, but are less bulky and can be moulded to different surfaces. The opportunity these present is in making solar viable in a range of applications, such as light-weight solar wall panels.
Better Solar Industry Training
Improved industry training is another major factor helping make solar energy dependable, affordable, and practical.
Since solar's initial emergence as a potential major energy source, a number of industry training organisations have begun working with manufacturers and installers, as well as architects and designers.
Proper installation minimises instances of equipment failure and inefficiencies.
As well as ensuring the technology works as it should, proper training reduces the chances of good products gaining a bad reputation because of poor installation.
Education for architects and designers is also an important step as, without educating architects and designers, solar technology will never be considered for many construction projects.