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The promising future of solar energy

Solar power systems have come a long way since 1839, when Alexandre Edmond Becquerel observed the photovoltaic effect via an electrode in a conductive solution exposed to light.

Solar energy, the radiant light and heat from the sun, is harnessed and used in various forms.

They include solar heating, solar photovoltaics, solar thermal electricity, solar architecture and artificial photosynthesis which can make considerable contributions to solving some of the most urgent energy problems the world now faces.

Twenty years ago, it was clear solar power wasn’t going to get anywhere by itself. Photovoltaic panels were expensive and inefficient. Even solar systems designed to heat water, a far less technologically tricky task, were bad buys on the open market.

Producing electricity from sunlight cost 10 times more than generating power using coal or nuclear energy. “The early systems might as well have been made out of gold,” said David Wedepohl, a spokesman for Germany’s Solar Industry Association.

But, as investors began to approach solar and wind power as long-term investments, knowing there was a guaranteed future for renewable energy and a commitment to connecting it to the grid, there was a decrease in prices of Photovoltaic Systems (PV) by 50 percent. A remarkable growth in solar system installations was seen.

In 2012, around 6 GW were installed in United States and 90 GW worldwide, many in Germany. That country is considered to be the harbinger of a future electrical power system that has a high penetration of variable-generation renewable energy.

Solar panels line Germany’s residential rooftops and top its low-slung barns. They sprout in orderly rows along train tracks and cover hills of coal mine tailings in what used to be East Germany. Old Soviet military bases, too polluted to use for anything else, have been turned into solar installations.

Twenty-two percent of Germany’s power is generated by renewable energy. Solar provides close to a quarter of that. The southern German state of Bavaria, population 12.5 million, has three photovoltaic panels per resident, which adds up to more installed solar capacity than in the entire United States.

With a long history of coal mining and heavy industry and the winter gloom, Germany is not the country you’d naturally think of as a solar power. And yet a combination of canny regulation and widespread public support for renewables have made Germany an unlikely leader in the global green-power movement. That has created a groundswell of small-scale power generation that could upend the dominance of traditional power companies.

In the U.S., the Department of Energy (DOE), set a target of a $1 per watt for installed PV solar energy systems, which equates to five or six cents kWh. This aimed to make solar competitive, without additional subsidies.

The DOE initiated the Sun Shot Initiative to reach this goal by 2020. Programs within the DOE are working diligently to make clean-energy technologies such as solar, wind, electric vehicles, building energy technologies, storage and smart grid technologies more commercially viable in the market place.

However, apart from cost reduction, large scale deployment is also an important criterion. Therefore, as clean energy technologies become more prevalent, power systems need to be more flexible and integrated.

This multi-systems integration is critical to ensure all utilities continue to operate the grid in a safe, reliable and cost effective manner.

Also, when you look at solar power in a broader sense, every country uses it and always has. Every time a farmer leaves a stalk out to dry, he or she is using solar power. Every time someone hangs a shirt out to dry, opens the blinds to let light and heat in, or puts rice in a black kettle inside a reflective box, that person is using solar power. For millennia, people from all walks of life and on every foot of the earth have used solar power in some way. Nothing has changed. We’re just improving the technology with which we may harness that power.

And they say, “Make hay while the sun shines!”

psebastian@unews.com

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