There are many reasons we why solar should be in the electrical generation conversation:
- Fossil fuels, while still cheaper and readily available, are a limited natural resource. As the supply becomes more scarce, its prices will rise. Solar power is pretty much unlimited and should continue to be for the next 5 billion years or so.
- Despite a massive new supply of oil and natural gas from domestic fracking, much of our current fossil fuel resources come from overseas producers leaving us dependent on these sources. Solar power is generated 100% domestically.
- Fossil fuels carry significant environmental concerns regarding climate change risks. Solar power has a very limited impact on the environment.
- Solar energy can effectively supplement the electrical grid by matching peak time output with peak time demand
- The cost of solar power has decreased dramatically over the last few years and should continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Government incentives have no doubt played a huge role in the growth of the industry to-date, but if costs continue to fall, solar will become more than competitive with other sources of power generation.
Becquerel would be blown away by all the discussions happening now on solar energy discussion forums, where thousands of members talk about commercial and home systems, tying into the power grid, solar water pumps, batteries/energy storage, DIY panel assembly, and other topics. People are talking solar and the market is listening. Solar power is becoming more accessible for big businesses and average homeowners. At conventions such as SPI '14, construction professionals are helping each other face the solar learning curve and evaluate its impact. If you're one of them, you probably have questions about availability, distribution, storage, and cost.
Not all sunlight is created equal. In fact, the southwest quadrant of the United States and parts of Hawaii receive much more sunlight than the rest of the country. The following image suggests that solar installations will be concentrated in this area, at least to begin with.
Since the advent of our current electrical grid, we have had a distribution system where electricity is generated at a power plant and is transmitted to the eventual end user.
With rooftop solar, the system can also work in reverse. Electricity is generated at the house, but because many of today’s solar systems are grid-tied, they can be users or sellers of electricity. During the day, power is generated by the home or business owner and excess energy is sold back to the utility company. At night, when there is no sun generating electricity, power can be purchased from the utility.
Net-metering laws enable solar households to buy and sell electricity to the grid. Although there are currently 43 states and Washington, DC with these laws, there is also increasing pushback from the utilities. As rooftop solar becomes more popular, utility companies will lose a significant amount of their revenues. As a result, they are doing all they can to slow the growth of solar energy. Utility companies have huge amounts of investments tied up in infrastructure, and a declining customer base could certainly spell disaster for them.
Night time has always presented a challenge to solar technology, given that we need more power at night when the sun is not available. So how do we store solar power for later use? Battery storage banks are the answer but this solution is currently very expensive and not widely available. However, help could be on the way in the form of the pending Tesla Gigafactory. This massive project aims to produce 50 gigawatts of battery power by 2020, mostly for cars. But approximately 15 gigawatts of this total energy produced are expected to go towards stationary energy storage systems such as for houses or commercial buildings.
Lead by the exponential decrease in the cost of solar panels, there has been a tremendous drop in the cost of solar over the last few years. Despite this, in most cases, the cost of solar generated electricity is still not competitive with coal or natural gas generated power. In addition, the 30% residential federal tax credit is due to expire at the end of 2016. However, between now and then, there are many possible developments that could make solar more competitive. Hardware costs should continue to decrease, but a more likely source of new competitiveness will be dramatic increases in the efficiency of solar systems. Even now, companies are making claims of 25% efficiency which would be a huge jump from the current level of 15 - 18%.
Today, solar energy's future is bright. Investments in solar power are gaining momentum in the private sector. The installed solar PV capacity has surged and explosive growth is predicted in the industry this year, with demand expected to rise more than 36%.
Discussions have snowballed into worldwide alliances, consortia, and conventions. By creating the opportunity to exchange ideas, knowledge, and expertise to advance solar energy development in the United States, SPI '14 is continuing the conversation that Becquerel started 175 years ago. As SPI '14's brochure aptly states, “The future of solar is your future.” Yours, mine, and ours.
“A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow