By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Spot Us.
Listen, this is not another half-baked reappraisal of our fraught energy conditions here on planet Earth. These are the facts of life. The potential for harnessing reusable energy, particularly solar, no longer remains the pipe dream of tree-hugging idealists. What was once a small-scale practice and seemingly lofty ambition is booming into a worldwide industry that’s both eminently practical and environmentally friendly.
As the late 19th century solar pioneer Frank Shuman declared nearly a century ago, it is “the most rational source of power.” To better understand what Shuman meant it is first necessary to examine the potential of this reusable energy source. The total accumulated solar energy that reaches the Earth each year is equivalent to 12.2 trillion watt-hours. Believe it or not, this figure is 20,000 times more than the sum energy consumed annually by all humanity.
Matters become complicated by the dire effects of hazardous toxic emissions. Currently we emit between 30 to 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Earth can withstand approximately 700 billion tons before the catastrophic two degree Celsius global increase will occur. We’re facing a serious time crunch if we care to take proper preventative measures and ensure our collective security here on this rock in the generations to come.
So then why do photovoltaic solar panels, the tools necessary to convert solar radiation into electricity, only account for producing less than one percent of the world’s total energy use? Despite this underwhelming figure, solar energy is on the rise in a rapidly changing industry that is becoming increasingly conscious about the imminent consequences of its carbon footprint.
Rise of the Solar Industry
Recent developments in the market have made solar energy more sustainable and cheaper to implement, but none of this happened overnight. The idea of harvesting the sun’s rays as a feasible energy resource originally gained popularity in the United States after the Second World War, and a decade later in its first commercial use powering satellites and space stations. The 1970s saw the creation of the Solar Energy Research Institute, a formation that the American government would unknowingly spurn other countries around the world to soon follow suit.
The real reason why there hasn’t been a worldwide surge in the use of solar power until recently is due to a phenomenon referred to as “Swanson’s Law.” Richard Swanson, founder of the solar power manufacturer SunPower Corporation, observed that that the price of solar photovoltaic modules drops 20 percent with every doubling of cumulative shipped volume. Essentially, his statement means that the costs are cut in half roughly every three years.
Studying a bar graph tracing this phenomenon, provided by Bloomberg & New Energy Finance, the fiscal implications become readily apparent. The price of photovoltaic cells per watt was at a high of $76.67/watt in 1977, and in 2013 the price was forecasted to be around $0.74/watt.
According to an executive summary from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) released last week, “2013 Q3 is the second largest quarter in the history of the U.S. solar market and the largest quarter ever for residential PV (photovoltaic) installations.”
The breakthrough also marks a global turning point for the nation’s role in utilizing such power:
“2013 is likely to be the first time in more than 15 years that the U.S. installs more solar capacity than the world leader Germany.”
For the first time ever solar energy is at a competitive level with fossil fuels. It has become so affordable that it can be generated for roughly half of the price of energy created from diesel oil.
Potential for Growth
The future remains hopeful, but a series of obstacles must be overcome before a truly widespread use can occur at the rate necessary to combat harmful terrestrial forces. For change to happen, social interactions, beginning first in the home, must be nurtured to accelerate the diffusion of solar technology into communities.
NYU Stern School of Business Assistant Professor of Marketing Bryan Bollinger, accompanied by colleagues and a partnership with SmartPower and the Connecticut Clean Energy Investment Fund, are hard at work envisioning the solutions to these scenarios. After the release of their recent Marketing Science paper, “Peer Effects in the Diffusion of Solar Photovoltaic Panels”, the group received a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) as part of the department’s program to support solar developments.
“One of the driving factors in installing PVs at the residential level is the cost,” Bollinger tells BTR. “Compared to other fuels available, if you want to see wide scale growth without government subsidies then there needs to be a decline in the cost.”
The grant will allow Bollinger and his colleagues the opportunity to better estimate the cost-effectiveness and behavioral strategies necessary to expedite such growth. Part of the process includes creating a predictive social network model to calculate numerical simulations that would maximize potential to make solar energy cost-competitive by the end of the decade.
According to Bollinger, the crux of this issue isn’t fixated to a single point, but differs according to country.
“Germany is at the forefront,” says Bollinger, “because they get a lot of help from across the border. Power production is certainly a variable, and certainly a dominating challenge. Local grids can and cannot support it sometimes. For instance, Hawaii has experienced a lot of solar energy growth and the grid is being stressed by this new level. A rule is being imposed where you have to adopt the new energy, to help pay for the grid updates, so the utilities need to pay consumers – which is great on the consumer end of the spectrum. Bottom line is the more people who pay for solar, the less it will cost on an individual basis to pay for the infrastructure needed.”
Bollinger isn’t the only dreamer seeking to conjure an accommodating world where solar energy becomes the norm.
Biomimicry is a relatively new field that fuses explorations in science with the mechanisms of nature; forging a relationship that seeks to be harmonious, and in a sense, an extension of the natural world. Since the practice relates to the solar realm, observing plants and how they utilize natural resources is becoming an increasingly inspiring and rewarding model for scientists looking to discover more efficient methods of energy production.
A paper recently published by North Carolina State University Researchers Orlin Velev and Hyung-Jun Koo reveals that solar cells can be created with channels that mimic organic vascular systems. Much akin to a plant cell or skin cell on your hand, these solar cells can re-grow themselves. Such self-regeneration becomes important as solar cells ultimately face degradation as a result of prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
Though Koo has been a very busy man lately with the advent of these regenerative cells, he takes a few minutes to chat with BTR between a connecting flight to Bangkok.
“Most PVs being developed are single use, and device regeneration could hardly be achieved in the ‘closed’ device structure,” he explains.
“A leaf, a solar cell in nature, includes an open-structure with its venation networks, where minerals, nutrients, and water are supplied and circulated. Thanks to the flow of channel networks, the photoactive bio-molecules, e.g. chlorophyll, can be continuously regenerated. My motivation was to develop a re-generable solar cell inspired by such a regeneration mechanism of a leaf.”
These new devices are a type of dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs) that are made up of a water based gel core, electrodes, and organic dye molecules that capture light and use it to generate electrical current. While the dye molecules usually lose efficiency over time, these new cells are regenerated by pumping fresh dyes into the channels while simultaneously cycling the used dye out. The result allows for electricity to be produced over multiple cycles.
“At the moment, the efficiency has been the most important issue in the research of the solar cell,” Koo tells BTR. “Given the device efficiency becomes more reasonable and reliable in the near future, I hope more people become interested in making devices with less environmental footprint for our nature.”
Joseph Hui is another innovator currently pushing the boundaries of biomimetic systems. His recent invention, the Lotus Mobile, is a portable solar canopy that captures sunlight to recharge cars and home appliances.
Resembling a lotus flower, the lightweight device is comprised of 18 pedal-like solar modules that fold up to protect against inclement weather, such as heavy rains and severe winds. In addition to the innovator making use of his obsession with flowers and butterflies, the Lotus Mobile eschews “soft costs” that have been a major detriment in limiting widespread solar power use.
David Williams, executive director of the Aruba-based commercial solar organization SolCarib responsible for installing hundreds of new systems in the country, has nothing but praise for Hui’s new contribution to the field of biomimicry.
“It’s the future,” Williams tells BTR. “It’s not necessarily about changing the technology overnight, but rather understanding how nature engages with energy. The current method of generation is unnatural.”
Bright Side of the Moon
If it weren’t for the overly-ambitious dreamers, modern science would know no remarkable progress. Might as well go big and shoot for the moon.
It turns out the Japanese-based Shimizu Corporation is taking this philosophy quite literally. They are currently proposing a plan to install solar arrays on the hemisphere section of the moon that receives constant sunlight, and create a system they estimate would generate a steady 13,000 terawatts of power. To put the predicted figure in perspective, according to Business Insider “the total installed electricity generation summer capacity in the United States was 1,050.9 gigawatts.”
The project, aptly called the Luna Ring, is obviously still in the early infancies of development. Its completion would entail a 250-mile wide band of solar panels snaking along the moon’s equator for a daunting measure of 6,800 miles.
Who will perform the construction, you might ask? Simple: robots.
According to the company’s website, machines will “perform various tasks on the lunar surface, including ground leveling and excavation of the hard bottom strata.” A small team of humans will oversee the construction while the robotic tasks are tele-operated from Earth.
Though the prospect may seem ridiculous to some, it never hurts to strive for the seemingly unattainable. Decades ago, inventions such as the Lotus Mobile and regenerating solar cells would have been sure to initiate laughs from skeptics. Now they are contributing forces to a solar movement that shows drastic potential for reshaping the way we live as energy consumers.
“The fact of the matter is that these systems are becoming more and more effective, and it’s simply something you cannot ignore,” Bollinger tells BTR.
“This is the real opportunity for research to make a difference.”