Solar Energy – What Next?

Ever since the first solar collector was invented in 1767, by Horace-Benedict de Saussure, the world has had a fascination with solar energy. Some of the greatest scientists in history have had an influence on the development of a wide range of technologies to harness sunlight for energy. Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839, a method of converting solar energy into direct current electricity using semi conducting materials. Albert Einstein wrote a paper on the photoelectric effect in 1905, but it was not confirmed experimentally until 1916, by Robert Millikan.

The last 80 years have seen an acceleration in the solar energy market. In 1977, the American government launched the Solar Energy Research Institute, prompting other countries to follow suit. The 1970s also saw the development of a more efficient solar panel by Exxon Corporation that was less costly to produce. The 80s and 90s saw the creation of the world’s first solar powered aircraft by Paul MacCready, and the world’s first solar powered car was developed in Australia.

China Currently Dominating the Market

Today, solar energy, and solar panels in particular, are a multi-billion industry that continues to grow. Recent figures indicate that global investment in solar energy technologies stands at $149.6 billion, and that the global solar PV manufacturing size is in excess of $91 billion. China continues to lead the way in the market and is expected to be responsible for an incredible 14 gigawatts of the estimated 55 gigawatts of solar panels to be installed throughout the world in 2015. The Asia-Pacific region will account for half of the solar panels installed this year, including various installations in Japan due to a reduction in nuclear power usage. It is worth noting that one gigawatt would be equivalent to the size of one large natural gas or power plant.

When most people think of solar panels, images of panels attached to rooftops of buildings or homes is the common perception. However, in China, most solar panels are mounted on the ground and sold to utilities. In fact, of the 28.05 gigawatts connected to the country’s grid in 2014, 23.38 were ground mounted. Part of the reasoning behind China’s aggressive strategy in solar energy is the necessity for alternative forms of energy, as they look to resolve their long-standing air pollution problem. Also, solar energy production is attractive due to the financial rewards that solar generators receive for producing energy.

The Future of Solar Energy

The potential for solar energy is incredible. More and more countries are beginning to increase their usage as they realise the long term benefits such as: no global warming pollution, no risk of fluctuating fuel prices and minimal costs. Governments continue to play an important role by offering incentives and rebates to users of solar panels, as increasing usage enables the country to attain more affordable, cleaner and reliable sources of electricity.

An interesting development as of late has seen a Swedish company develop a new solar electricity generation system that may be the most efficient the world has ever seen. At present, photovoltaic panels can convert up to 23% of the sun’s energy into direct electricity, but generally only 15% is usable by the grid. Should Ripasso be successful in their testing in the African desert, they are confident of converting 34% of the sun’s energy into directly usable electric power for the grid, and around 17% for standard solar panels used in home and businesses. It is estimated that one single Ripasso dish has the potential to power 24 homes comfortably, and that the same energy consumption using coal would result in the release of over 80 metric tonnes of C02 into the atmosphere.

While the technology has a proven track record in military use, and the benefits listed above are clear, there are also some negatives attached at present. Firstly, the price of regular photovoltaic panels continues to fall year on year. Competing on price will be a significant challenge in itself, but the energy potential being touted by Ripasso is a selling point that may offset a variance in price. The second challenge facing the technology is the fact that it is limited to areas that receive regular bright sunshine, therefore excluding many markets at present.

The solar industry looks certain to be an exciting place to be for years to come. With scientists in UCLA reportedly on the verge of increasing the amount of time that solar energy can be stored in solar panels, global demand and usage could increase further still.