During the early 1980s when Steve Jobs talked about “a computer in the hands of everyday people”, many experts in the industry thought that the kid was crazy. Yet, Job’s vision is confirmed by history today. What made the personal computer so successful that the experts did not see? Three important factors are in play:
1. People want to work independently without relying on the mainframe computer (now relegated to crunching very big numbers and codes). This strong self-empower instinct creates a huge unstoppable demand.
2. The performance of computer chips has risen exponentially accompanied by price drops and size reduction. This makes it affordable for everyday people to own a personal computer. In fact, the mobile phone is an outgrowth of the PC industry due to the increasing power of computer chips.
3. The Internet connects all the PCs and cell phones of the world, thereby further enhancing the power of each one.
I wish to provoke your thoughts by suggesting a solar panel on every roof. Do you see any parallel between solar panels and personal computers? They are both electronic in nature, and more.
First, the same self-empower instinct applies. Do you feel powerless every time you see a gasoline price rise? Do you want to own an electric car and forget about gasoline altogether? Do you want to generate your own electricity, and sell any surplus back to the utility company? The demand always exists but has not reached critical mass yet because solar technology is still maturing. In developing countries or remote areas of the world, the electricity grid is either unreliable or non-existent, therefore the demand for solar is even greater.
Second, solar technology is on its way to satisfy the huge worldwide demand both in price and efficiency. A solar panel is an electrical device that converts sunlight directly into electricity through the photovoltaic effect. The materials used are mainly crystalline silicon (supplemented by cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide, and amorphous silicon in thin film technology). The manufacturing process is similar to that of semiconductors that involves packing as many photovoltaic cells (or circuits) as possible onto silicon wafer to increase its efficiency. Since the late 1970s, the price of solar has dropped precipitously from $100 per watt to under $2 today. It is predicted by 2015, grid parity will be reached in the United States. That means electricity from the sun will cost the same as that supplied by utility companies burning fossil fuels.
Reaching grid parity is inevitable due to the following factors: unrelenting price rises in fossil fuels, better efficiency of solar cells (the current 20% rate implying great potential for growth), drastic price reductions of solar panels, more companies offering zero down payment for installation, government subsidies, and new products such as solar roof, solar paints, and pliable solar sheets.
Third, while the PC relies on the Internet to increase its power of connection, the solar panel does not. The solar panel delivers energy independence to the individual or the household. It can be scaled up to a community or a city. This renders the electricity grid less important because people can generate electricity for their own consumption without relying on outside supply.
What is the major hurdle for solar? I think battery technology holds the key. Since the sun only shines for half a day, the electricity generated must be stored for later use, or any surplus will be lost. To improve efficiency, a storage battery should weigh less, cost less, measure smaller, and store more electricity. Battery technology plays an important role in speeding up the mass adoption of solar in the years to come. One example is the Nissan Leaf. Its battery only allows the car to travel 100 miles. A further extension of its range will bring the car into the mainstream market. It will also promote solar electricity for the car to be recharged at home using sunlight that is free.
So you see a solar panel on every roof is inextricably tied to the advancement of battery technology and the electric car going mainstream.