How Solar Power Will Empower the World

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Of all the renewable energy sources we have to choose from, solar power has by far the most potential to supply all our energy needs into the foreseeable future.

That’s because it’s practically infinite. It comes from the Sun — the largest power source in the solar system — and the sun isn’t going anywhere for billions of years.

And even though we’ve had the ability to harness the power of the sun for over a century now, it hasn’t become efficient enough or cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels until very recently.

Now we’re in the midst of a solar power revolution that promises to change the world in much the same way as computers have.

For the first time ever, the declining cost of solar power is putting it in direct competition with fossil fuels. In some parts of the world, solar power is even cheaper than oil. And it’s expected to keep dropping.

In fact the first solar cell was created in 1883 — only a year after the first coal-fired power station was built by Thomas Edison.

Just a few decades earlier, it had been observed that an electrical current could be generated in some materials when exposed to sunlight. This was the photovoltaic effect. If someone could harness this effect, electricity could be generated with no fuel whatsoever — wherever the sun was shining.

But this early solar cell only converted about 1% of the sunlight falling on it into electricity, making it no match for Edison’s coal plants.

For the rest of the 19th century and much of the 20th, the dream of solar power would remain just that — a dream — and fossil fuels would dominate our energy landscape.

Through their work developing the silicon transistor — which would lead to the electronics revolution — Bell Labs developed the first practical solar cell in 1954.

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NASA became one the earliest consumers of these new and improved solar cells and solar panels soon became commonplace on satellites and spacecraft.

But the solar power boom we’re seeing today didn’t really take off until the oil crisis of the late 70s. The scarcity of fossil fuels and rising gas prices at the time motivated a whole new generation of entrepreneurs to envision a world where solar power could wean us off oil dependence.

After researching solar cell technology at Stanford, Richard Swanson founded his solar power company, SunPower Corporation, in 1985. But he is most well known for the law that bears his name — Swanson’s Law.

Swanson’s Law states that solar panel prices will decline by 20% every time the capacity of the solar industry doubles.

Which basically means that the more solar panels we make, the cheaper they get.

And that is exactly what is happening now.

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In 1977, the price of a solar panel per watt was about $76. Today, in the US it hovers around 50 cents. Commercial costs, including all the setup and installation, is just below $2 and it’s expected to be under $1 by 2020.

By comparison, the construction costs of a coal power plant — generally the least expensive power source — are a little over $2 per watt.

Much of this price decrease has happened only in the last decade or so.

Much like Moore’s Law — which projected the exponential growth of computer processing power — Swanson’s Law projects the exponential growth of solar cells. And the same exponential growth that put a computer in most of our pockets is giving us cheap, practically infinite energy.

The price of solar power has dropped so precipitously and the growth of manufacturing has risen so fast that the International Energy Agency has had to consistently revise its solar power estimates to keep up with the growth.

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Grid parity is the point at which the cost of an energy source becomes equal to or less than the localized cost of electricity. This figures varies from location to location because the cost of electricity varies.

Grid parity is an important benchmark because it’s the point where solar power becomes a financially feasible alternative to fossil fuels. Generally, if you live in a sunny place like southern California, solar power is now just as cheap as fossil fuels.

And if we want to slow climate change, we have to start burning less fossil fuels.

In 2011, Germany became one of the first countries in the world to reach grid parity with solar power. This is pretty astounding because Germany isn’t necessarily renowned for its sunny weather. Heavy investment in solar power led to grid parity there but countries all over the world are reaching grid parity without any government subsidies.

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Grid parity has been reached in about 30 countries so far — with more than half of all the photovoltaics deployed in the coming years expected to be in China and India.

Right now, 20 US states are currently at grid parity for solar power. 22 more are expected to reach that goal by 2020. That’s 42 states out of 50 that could start relying on solar power as much as fossil fuels.

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Even the state I live in — Illinois — is expected to reach grid parity very soon. And I can tell you from experience, Illinois is not known for its sunshine.

At this rate, solar power is expected to be the world’s number one energy source by 2050.

For one, although the power supply is free and limitless, it is not always available. It could be cloudy or it could be night. But large capacity batteries could store electricity for use during the dark times and we could always burn a little fossil fuel to fill in the gaps. Even with an intermittent electricity supply, widespread solar would help ease the use of fossil fuel by significant amounts.

Solar power requires no fuel (except photons and they are virtually limitless). It is carbon neutral. Even the carbon emitted in the manufacture of solar panels is offset by the carbon saved through the use of solar power over fossil fuels. And most solar photovoltaic systems have an estimated lifespan of 30 years or more.

No longer will electricity have to generated at massive central power stations as Thomas Edison envisioned. Solar panels can be set up right where the electricity is needed — on the roof your home, or in the pavement of your roads. Individuals could own their own solar panels and generate electricity for themselves or even sell excess energy back to the grid.

Just as computers decentralized communication and information, solar power could decentralize power generation.

This could be especially useful in disaster areas or regions of the world with deteriorating power grids or no grid at all — where people might have no other way of obtaining reliable electricity. It doesn’t require access to a mine or an oil field. After all, the Sun shines everywhere — regardless of national boundaries and geography.

Solar power could not only empower the citizens of developed countries to take charge of their own energy generation, it could allow the millions of people on this planet who have never had electricity to finally have a cost effective way of obtaining it.

It’s hard to overstate the wide-ranging effects this solar power revolution could have. After all, we’re talking about the Sun here.

Even nuclear energy doesn’t hold the same potential energy reserves as our Sun. And the pursuit of nuclear fusion seems kind of redundant when you realize we already have a working fusion reactor right up in the sky, providing us with more energy than we will ever need.

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While our energy future will always be powered by a variety of energy sources and fossil fuels won’t be eliminated entirely — not in the near term anyway — solar power is the only energy source we have at our disposal that promises to give us clean energy from an unlimited source.

It’s been underway for over a hundred years now, but for decades, solar power was stymied by high cost and poor efficiency.

But both of those barriers are gone now.

There is no reason to think that solar power couldn’t be as ubiquitous and as widely available as the sunlight that powers it. Whether it lives up to this potential depends solely on us.

The sun has been here for billions of years and it will continue to be here billions of years after we’re long gone. Our time on this planet is a finite resource. But the choices we make now will determine whether or not it is renewable.

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