Solar energy has come a long way from being an expensive and relatively inefficient technology to being the cheapest and most efficient way to generate electricity. Today, solar energy is even cheaper than coal, and yet it only produces a mere three percent of the world’s electricity. This raises the question: why aren’t we using more of it? In this article, we will explore how solar energy became so cheap, why it is not yet more widespread, and how it can become an even more significant player in the future.
The Dramatic Drop in Solar Prices
Solar energy’s rise to dominance began with a dramatic drop in prices. In the last fifteen years alone, the price of solar panels has gone from $4 per watt to only 20 cents for that same watt. The reason for this price drop is a result of a long chain of events that involves many countries, each contributing a piece of the puzzle. The US created the modern-day silicon solar cell in 1954, and it initially got used in the space industry but remained super expensive. However, as the technology progressed, prices started to fall. Germany passed a law in 2000 to boost renewable energy development, which put a fixed price on energy generated from sources like wind or solar. This created a market for solar panels, and it became more financially feasible for people and companies to set up solar panels. As a result, China started pumping out solar cells, which created the entire industry on a scale that the West failed to keep up with, and today, China is the biggest producer of solar panels, accounting for 70% of the world’s production.
The Duck Curve and the Limitations of Solar Energy
Although solar energy is cheaper and cleaner, it has one significant disadvantage: it only works when the sun is shining. When it is cloudy or dark, even the best solar cells are pretty much useless. This has created a significant problem in terms of integrating solar energy into power systems, which is why we have not seen more solar power plants. The so-called duck curve charts our demand for power from non-renewable sources like coal and gas throughout the day. In places with lots of solar, the curve changes, and demand for non-renewable energy drops when the sun rises and solar energy production kicks in. Until the sun sets, conventional demand shoots up again, way steeper than in the first curve. Traditional power plants struggle to ramp up so quickly, meaning they have to keep them running at a certain output all day, even though there is lots of solar. This leads to an oversupply of electricity produced in the middle of the day when it is not needed. There are also limits to how much energy you can put into the grid, and too much solar could overpower it, so it needs to be thrown away. These have always made it super difficult to add lots of solar to power systems.
The Solution to Solar Energy’s Storage Problem
Fortunately, there is now a solution to the storage problem that solar energy has always had, and that is lithium-ion batteries. They have become a lot better and a lot cheaper than expected in the last few years. Lithium-ion batteries are a viable option for storing and shifting at least a few hours’ worth of solar energy as needed. The state of New Mexico, for example, just decided to shut down a coal plant and instead build new solar farms that store large amounts of the energy they produce in batteries. Solar projects built with a couple of hours of storage in the battery can shift some generation from the middle of the day to the evening when there is often a peak in electricity demand. Sometimes, we might want longer-term storage in places without much sunshine, for example. In those cases, companies are offering other solutions such as flow batteries, which can store more energy and for longer but are still relatively expensive. Pumped hydro storage is another option that is already used quite a bit, but it requires two lakes, and one of them needs to be on a hill. Gravity-based solutions, such as the tower that raises building blocks with solar energy, and then releases the energy by lowering them again, are being developed, but they require a lot of space. Another option is using solar to produce hydrogen, but the process is still pretty costly.
Despite these alternatives, lithium-ion batteries are becoming so flexible and so inexpensive that it will be hard for these alternatives to compete. But they do have other attributes, like they hold a charge longer, which could turn out to play a pretty important role in some applications. With the storage problem solved, solar energy can become a much more significant player in the energy market.
The Future of Solar Energy
The future of solar energy looks very bright indeed. BloombergNEF, a research firm, forecasts that even with no further policy, solar would supply about 23 percent of global electricity by 2050. Experts predict that by 2030, we could be talking about solar doing a large part of the world’s electricity supply. Solar energy has come a long, long way, and it is going to be big, everywhere, and cheaper than ever.
Solar energy has become the cheapest and most efficient way to generate electricity, and its rise to dominance is thanks to a long chain of events involving many countries, each contributing a piece of the puzzle. Although solar energy’s biggest disadvantage is that it only works when the sun is shining, advances in energy storage, especially lithium-ion batteries, have made it possible to store solar energy and use it as needed. With storage no longer a significant problem, solar energy can become a much more significant player in the energy market. The future of solar energy is very promising, and it is going to be big, everywhere, and cheaper than ever.
However, for solar energy to reach its full potential, there are still some challenges to overcome. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of infrastructure for solar energy. There needs to be a more significant investment in transmission lines and energy storage facilities to allow for the efficient distribution and use of solar energy. Governments and energy companies need to work together to create a regulatory framework that incentivizes the development of solar energy infrastructure.
Another challenge is the integration of solar energy into the existing energy system. As more solar energy is added to the grid, the energy system needs to become more flexible to accommodate the variability of solar energy. This will require a significant investment in energy storage facilities and advanced grid management systems. Governments and energy companies need to work together to create a regulatory framework that incentivizes the development of advanced grid management systems.
Finally, there is a need for more research and development in solar technology. While solar energy has come a long way in the last few decades, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Research into new materials and technologies can help to improve the efficiency of solar cells and reduce the cost of solar energy even further. Governments and energy companies need to invest in research and development to support the continued growth and improvement of solar technology.
In conclusion, solar energy has become the cheapest and most efficient way to generate electricity, and it has a very promising future. The rise of solar energy is thanks to a long chain of events involving many countries, each contributing a piece of the puzzle. Although solar energy still faces some challenges, such as the lack of infrastructure, the integration into the existing energy system, and the need for more research and development, it has the potential to become a much more significant player in the energy market. Governments and energy companies need to work together to create a regulatory framework that incentivizes the development of solar energy infrastructure, advanced grid management systems, and research and development in solar technology. With the right investments and policies, solar energy can become a major source of clean and renewable energy, helping to mitigate climate change and ensure a more sustainable future for all.