Solar energy has generated plenty of excitement in recent years. I wish to show you where the action is. According to an article from the San Jose Mercury News (10/2/2011), the following are the top ten companies that produce solar panels:
Year 2006————-Capacity (Megawatts)
China Sunergy, China—-180
Sanyo Electric, Japan—–115
The picture has changed dramatically after only four years:
Year 2010————Capacity (Megawatts)
JA Solar, China———1900
First Solar, USA———1502
Trina Solar, China——-1000
Canadian Solar, China—-800
The increase in capacity is astounding for the top ten, whose production jumped from a total of 2356 to 10,722 megawatts in four years’ time. (One megawatt of electricity can power approximately 1,000 homes). In addition, China dominates the world market with six companies occupying the top ten spots.
As a result of competition and technology advancement, the price of solar power has fallen from $100 per watt to $20 recently, and is predicted to come down even further. This looks similar to the electronics industry where mass volumes and falling prices go hand in hand, ultimately creating a mass consumer market. The vision of one personal computer or one cell phone per household has more or less come true. Can one panel per rooftop be realized in the near future? There are reasons to believe so with prices dropping fast.
Everybody knows that sunlight is free. The big handicap for solar energy is the upfront cost of equipment and installation. A lesser handicap is storage cost, because the electricity generated during daytime is lost if not used. The equipment cost is now coming down drastically. Some solar companies in the US are now offering no upfront cost with a contract for monthly payments that are not higher than the existing electricity bill. Already, some houses are being built with solar roof as part of the package. These will facilitate the realization of a mass market for solar.
Like all new industries, solar energy has a tough beginning in developed countries, especially the US, due to the vested interests of traditional industries such as coal, oil, gas, and electricity generation. They see the competition coming from solar that is hard to beat. So they try to erect all kinds of roadblocks, political or otherwise, to prevent solar energy from taking off. So far, they have managed to slowdown its development. Ultimately, technological innovation and price drops will win the day because they appeal to the mass consumer market, aided by the increasing popularity of plug-in hybrid and electric cars.
Apart from the long-term benefits of being clean, solar energy carries two extra advantages. It is both scalable and distributive. Regarding the former, solar panels are installed initially to serve a household. More panels can be added for a building, a company, or a hospital. A big array of panels or solar farm can be built to serve a town. As for the latter advantage, solar panels make the unit being served an independent generator/consumer of electricity. That means it does not need a power company to supply electricity, thus saving a transmission line. This is especially useful for developing countries where transmission infrastructure is lacking. We cannot underestimate the scalable and distributive potentials as demonstrated by the personal computer and cell phone, because they empower people to pursue productive work independently.
As technology develops, we will see innovative materials being used in roof tiles, windows, walls, and better still, solar paints. In other words, any part of the exterior of a building, car, or ship can be turned into electricity generator. It’s a matter of time when laboratory research will eventually move to commercialization for the mass market.
Will solar energy be the next big thing? The chances are much better today given rising costs of fossil fuels, both for the economy and the environment. All you need is to look around and think about the potential for solar electricity conversion or addition, especially for buildings and land/sea transport.
The intrinsic appeal of solar power is that we don’t have to worry about exploration, extraction, refining, transmission, and pollution inherent in fossil fuels, because sunlight is always there when daytime comes. Plants know how to use it. Animals know how to use it by eating the plants. It’s hard to understand why humans are still foolishly digging deeper to find energy. Maybe we are obsessed with what we already have established, and forget about the future potential of other alternatives. Now we wind up having to worry about carbon dioxide and other pollutants after burning huge amounts of fossil fuels.