Commercial solar energy: in my lifetime

I’ve been hearing about solar power all my life. And I was getting pretty cynical. Yeah, yeah, solar power. And world peace, tricorders, an end to disease and so on.

So I was surprised to read in recent reports from the International Energy Agency that there is a real shot at commercially viable solar power within the next decade.

Why now? The hurdle until recently was the high cost of photovoltaics, the systems to turn solar energy into electric current and put it on the grid. While sunshine is free, the cells that trap it rely on a certain grade of silicon (expensive to produce). Then land must be found for solar plants, and then the cells must be mounted in large glass installations. Power generated is often direct current at an inappropriate voltage. So transformers and other equipment are involved to produce alternating current at an appropriate voltage and add it to the existing grid.

However, there have been recent technical achievements that have resulted in lower-cost cells based on technologies such as cadmium telluride.

To encourage “green” energy solutions, many governments (including Ontario’s) have supported solar energy through feed-in tariffs, in which providers are paid a premium price (a form of incentive or subsidy) under long-term contracts. The price often reflects the cost of production, rather than the market cost of electricity.

However, with costs coming down, experts are talking about the magical moment of “grid parity,” when the cost of providing power from photovoltaics matches the market cost of electricity. At that sweet spot, solar power becomes commercially viable. This has actually been achieved in some international systems. As the new technologies come on stream, it will be more and more common. In the same way that lofty windmills are a familiar sight in the Gaspe, arrays of glass-plated solar-catchers will appear on abandoned industrial land (brownfields) or next to cow pastures. And the world will become a better place.

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