Today’s Solar Energy Forecast: Sunny with a 100% chance of Solar Energy
The one ‘fatal’ flaw of solar energy — that the power generated cannot be effectively stored for long periods of time in an economical way — may have just met its match. And what looks, basically, like an ordinary shipping container may provide a glimpse into the future of renewable energy.
The solar and wind energy industries are booming. The shale gas ‘revolution’ has received a lot of attention in the media lately, as it should; however, as far as actual percentage growth goes, the real story appears to be solar energy. But don’t take my word for it. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) annual net generation of solar power is up +700% since 2001 (that was the starting baseline the EIA used for its data and compared the net annual usage of solar, coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Since 2001, coal and nuclear usage were down overall and natural gas usage was up approximately 100%). Solar was significantly head and shoulders above all others for growth.
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One of the reasons attributed the exponential solar growth is the amazing efficiency achieved with the technology. This past September, a German-French research team broke the world record for the most efficient solar cell. The team created a cell that can convert 44.7% of the sunlight it receives into energy (note: 50% efficiency is considered to be the ‘holy grail’ within the solar industry, which presumably will be achieved in the not-too-distant future, since the previous solar world record of 43.6% was achieved by this same team in May of this year). The new solar cell will eventually be used in concentrated photovoltaic installations, which happens to be the fastest-growing type of solar power.
No one particular event contributed to launch solar to the top; however, there were numerous things that have happened in recent years that propelled solar renewable energy’s widespread use:
- After many years of relative price stability, oil and gas prices started increasing dramatically.
- A renewable fuel standard was achieved in the US (meaning a percentage of an electricity supplier’s sales or new generating capacity must be green), the Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires that all Americans have ‘net metering’ upon request, which allows a homeowner with renewable power to sell electricity back to their utility
- Solar incentives got packed in the US government’s ‘bailout,’ meaning the EPA created federal incentives for solar (i.e. 30% investment tax credit for commercial and residential solar systems), solar energy is cost competitive in 10 US states and (soon) will be cost competitive in 12 others.
- People started to realize that climate change (regardless of the cause) was real. According to the scientific modeling by a renowned Columbia University astrophysicist, ocean heat content, the amount of heat, as measured in Watts in the ocean, has increased 600% in ten years (1993 to 2003).
- European subsidies unleashed a global tidal wave of inexpensive solar panels. European countries spent billions of dollars in the renewable energy sector, with solar leading the way. Germany reportedly spent €1.5 billion per year on its solar industry, which has proven to have paid off (between 2004 and 2008 photovoltaic generation increased from 32 million to 4.4 billion kilowatt hours).
- Moore’s Law — solar technologies’ yields improved dramatically. Moore’s Law stipulates that computer-processing speeds increase exponentially every year as a result of constantly improving and evolving technology. Now the same is true with solar technology. Every year, solar cells become more efficient (in other words, solar cell are able to convert more electrons into energy).
Furthermore, oil giant Shell says it anticipates solar energy to become the world’s number one energy source by 2100. It should be noted that more energy from the sun hits Earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on our planet in an entire year. Like personal computers in the late 1970s, solar technology is still in its relative infancy, meaning there’s lots of room for yield improvement, and will undoubtedly advance significantly in future.
As mentioned previously, one of those major solar technological advancements looks like a shipping container. However, this unassuming steel rectangle represents the future of solar energy technology. As great as solar technology is, it isn’t always sunny out. Lack of sunshine disrupts the ability of solar generators to provide a steady stream of electrical current. Until now. Solar Grid Storage has produced the first renewable energy storage systems in the US, capable of both storing generation when the sun is not shining and delivering power to the local electric grid. The following graphic explains how it works (click to enlarge):
Graphite enthusiasts, note the significant off lithium-ion battery packs inside the unit. InvestorIntel readers already know the critical role rare earth elements play in the manufacturing of solar technology.
Current renewable storage set ups are relatively cost prohibitive (very expensive). This smaller, simpler system makes renewable storage more affordable and accessible. Solar Grid Storage, the company that built and designed this whole system gets paid for helping the electric grid operator balance supply and demand — money that would otherwise be going to natural-gas plants.
The increasing efficiency and cost-effectiveness of solar will revolutionize, not just solar technology, but the way electrical grids operate. It is anticipated that in fture, we will see a major increase in distributed generation and micro grids — with the actual electrical grid serving as more of a backup. Given the rapid advancement in the solar renewable energy market, it is just a matter of time before solar becomes a heavyweight competitor in the electricity market.
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