Humankind has been mesmerized by the power of the Sun for millennia. The idea of a sun deity is pervasive across many religions, cultures & geographies including the Egyptian Sun God, Ra, the Hindu Sun God, Surya, the Greek deity Helios, and numerous other examples throughout the Aztec Empire, Native American tribes, Buddhism & ancient Mesopotamia. Since the origins of agriculture 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, we have been learning to harness the power of the sun to grow crops to feed our hungry population. Now we are turning again to our solar system’s life force to feed our energy hungry world with Solar Power.
Energy is one of the most essential parts of our global society. Access to energy is intertwined with most of the key economic functions of society as it is necessary for modern day agriculture, waste & water management, heating & cooling, transportation, communication, industrial, commercial & residential uses. As we consider ways to combat the societal effects of global climate change, a sustainable energy policy including solar energy is an essential tool in order to provide us a way to reduce pollution & future greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels while also ensuring that we have a renewable and cost effective source of energy to sustain the necessary societal systems.
The solar energy industry has been around for more than 50 years now and the benefits & potential of the industry to power the world are not a huge secret. The Sun produces an abundant, renewable, & clean source of energy that is capable of fulfilling all of the world’s current energy demands however there are issues with intermittency, storage & transmission of energy, and of course cost competitiveness with other energy options such as oil, natural gas & coal. However within the past few years we have seen the economics of solar energy shift in a positive direction with the prices of photovoltaic (PV) cells plummeting due to the increase in supply, mostly from Chinese producers.
The current usage of solar energy in the world is still only about 0.25% of the world’s total energy consumption, however the installed capacity of solar power is increasing around the world at an incredible rate. Installed capacity has more than doubled in the past 2 years from close to 40GW to more than 100GW. Countries like Germany, Italy, China, USA, & Japan all have installed capacity of greater than 5GW with Germany leading the way at 33GW largely due to a friendly subsidy & regulatory environment. Even oil producing Saudi Arabia has jumped onto the solar energy bandwagon by announcing plans to produce 41GW of solar energy by 2032. India recently joined the club of countries who have installed solar capacities of at least 1GW by more than doubling its installed solar capacity during 2012, largely due to the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission a government subsidy program which aims to have installed capacity of 22GW by 2022. Much of this growth in installed capacity has been achieved through the development of utility scale solar farms some with hundreds of MW of capacity. These sorts of initiatives can be a successful way to develop solar capacity in high insolation areas like the states of Gujarat & Rajasthan in India as well as the Mojave desert of California in the USA and with the help of various subsidies can allow for independent power producers to profitably supply clean renewable energy to the grid. Furthermore, by developing a local solar energy industry, countries have the ability to create local jobs in high tech manufacturing in order to supply the needed parts and equipment. As costs continue to decline, these solar farms with their zero cost fuel source (sunlight) will eventually reach grid parity and will become cost competitive without subsidy with other forms of utility scale energy especially as policy makers begin to phase out some of the $500 billion in subsidies to production & consumption of fossil fuels around the world.
Due to the ability to decentralize solar energy production, there are numerous alternative models to the utility scale solar farms for distribution of solar energy, particularly for off-grid communities. Innovative businesses in the USA, Sub-Saharan Africa and India have already discovered how to provide the power of solar energy to consumers in a more cost effective way than current alternatives. These solutions include a variety of approaches based on the context of the specific customer segment. In the USA companies like Sun Power provide residential solar panel installations that allow consumers to save on their monthly energy bills, cash in on tax credits & rebates, and increase the value of their homes. In addition solar installations can allow for payback periods as low as 5 years and savings of up to $30,000 over the 25 year life of a system. Companies like Solar City are using a different approach by leasing solar energy. This approach allows customers to power their homes with clean solar energy without the upfront costs of solar panel purchase and installation. The Solar City model still provides the ability to sell additional capacity back to the grid creating additional savings on monthly electricity bills. A company called Simpa Networks is using a similar pay as you go concept through its metering & payment system in off-grid communities in India in order to provide for the radical affordability of this technology in rural areas . After installation of a household solar energy system customers are able to prepay for solar energy through their mobile phone in small user-defined increments. In this way the payment mechanism seeks to replace current purchasing habits of more polluting & dangerous kerosene or diesel. Furthermore each payment goes towards the overall purchase of the system allowing for customers to eventually unlock the system providing free energy for the remaining life of the unit. Another company called d.light designs is selling solar powered lamps across the developing world providing a higher quality & cleaner source of light to millions of people worldwide without access to reliable electricity. In these cases, beyond just access to electricity, solar energy is providing the economic benefits of connectivity and increased productivity for these rural households.
The applications of decentralized solar energy across the developing world have enormous potential. In India the costs of extending the existing grid to rural & mountainous areas are prohibitively high in many places and the current methods of using kerosene and diesel for light & power are more polluting, have negative health effects, and can be more costly when compared with solar power despite widespread government subsidies of fuel for the poor. There is a huge opportunity to provide clean, decentralized electricity to these communities through micro-grids & household systems and solar energy could be a great way to produce the electricity to power these systems. On a recent visit to Hosur, an industrial hub outside of Bangalore, I witnessed a community of small manufacturing businesses running their manufacturing processes on diesel generators as the electricity supply was intermittent at best. For these businesses, diesel costs can make up a significant portion of their operational expenses and the need for these systems causes the local environment to be polluted with the fumes, noise & smell of diesel generators. There are thousands of small industrial sites like this throughout India and countless more around the world that could all benefit from small scale solutions providing more cost effective & cleaner solar energy.
Over the coming decades installed capacity and usage of solar energy will continue to increase worldwide as costs continue to decline with improvements to technology related to capture, conversion, storage & transmission and as policy & regulatory environments are adapted to help facilitate access to these beneficial technologies. As new models & applications are created the distribution of solar energy can become widespread throughout the developing world leading the charge of electrifying the 1.3 billion people worldwide without reliable access to electricity. Furthermore as solar energy helps to facilitate decentralized & local energy production, countries & individuals will become more energy independent reducing the risk of international conflict over finite energy resources that are vital to economic growth. Innovative designs incorporating solar energy could revolutionize everything from transportation to clean water systems. As the dawn of the solar age fades, the future of solar energy looks bright.