The world of renewable energy is rapidly evolving. What once was branded impractical or uneconomical is now at the forefront of a revolution changing the global energy market. Solar energy is perhaps the best example for this. The earliest commercial use of solar panels to generate electricity dates back to the 1950s; since then, solar energy has come a very long way thanks to technological and scientific advancements. In fact, solar energy now threatens to overtake fossil fuels in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Explained below is a recent history of the increase in efficiency of solar plates and decrease in cost of generating solar energy, and why such trends indicate the end of the fossil-fuel era and the ushering in of the age of renewable energy.
The Rise in Efficiency and Decrease in Cost of Solar Panels
Four decades after French scientist Edmond Becquerel demonstrated that solar cells could convert sunlight into electricity in 1839, an American by the name of Charles Fritts invented the world’s first solar array in New York. This array was to be installed on a rooftop, and it came only one year after the world’s first commercial coal plant was opened by Thomas Edison in 1882. Since then, coal and solar power went their separate ways in terms of development, with renewable energy sources generally lagging behind their fossil fuels counterparts every step of the way.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that solar power started to see major breakthroughs again in terms of its commercial viability and applications. Spurred on by energy crises due to oil embargos throughout the 1970s, the world began serious research and development efforts that later allowed solar photovoltaic (PV) cells to see widespread use. From having an efficiency of less than 1% around the time of their creation, to a steady rise in efficiency peaking around 14% in 1960, solar technology was becoming much more efficient. However, it was still far too expensive for most practical uses. That was until an American scientist by the name of Elliot Berman designed a far cheaper solar cell using silicon from multiple crystals, bringing the down the cost per watt of solar energy generation from $100 to just $20.
Below is a graph showing this incredible downward trend in cost per watt of solar energy from just over $76 in 1977 to below $1 in 2013, averaging residential, commercial, and industrial costs.
(Cost per watt is calculated by dividing the total cost of a solar panel or cell by the number of watts it can produce. For example, a solar panel costing $1,000 with a production rating of 200 W would have a cost per watt of $5.)
Solar Energy Projects: Then vs. Now
The decrease in price and increase in efficiency of solar energy over the years is reflected in the mega-scale solar energy projects around the world. Just 10 years ago, there were only 34 major solar projects in the world; today there are hundreds. The largest solar PV project in 2010 was Canada’s Sarnia plant, with a capacity of 97 MW and a total cost of $400 million. Today, India’s Pavagada Solar Park is the largest in the world with a staggering capacity of 2,050 MW! Though it cost around $2.1 billion, a simple calculation would show that it is around 4 times more efficient and cost-effective in $/Watt than Canada’s Sarnia plant, built 9 years earlier. This is testament to the fact that not only is solar energy generating far more electricity today than it did one decade ago (around ten times as much), but it is also doing it so much more efficiently.
Solar Energy and Climate Change
Solar energy, like most other forms of renewable energy, is a clean source of power that produces no greenhouse gases while generating electricity. Opponents of solar energy have sometimes criticized its need for large areas of land or questionable manufacturing processes, but there is no doubt that they are still much cleaner and better for the environment than any alternative fossil fuel sources. It has been our reliance on fuels such as coal, oil, and gas that are causing the devastating effects of climate change that will continue to grip the planet for the coming decades or centuries, but it must be our transition to newer, cleaner forms of energy such as solar that lower our greenhouse gas emissions and prevent irreversible damage to our climate.
So What’s Next?
Forbes magazine has estimated that by the end of this year, renewable energy including solar PV will become consistently cheaper than fossil fuels. As we have seen above, the cost of electricity generated by solar PV energy has decreased by around 75% since 2010 alone, and it will continue to fall. Now, solar energy is comparable in price to fossil fuels such as coal and gas, but while coal and gas have peaked long ago, solar energy will continue to grow and become more efficient and less expensive. Mega-scale solar projects are becoming bigger, more productive, and more efficient. Global solar capacity is 53 times higher today than it was just nine years ago, and that’s largely thanks to widespread adaptation by individuals, companies, and governments around the world. As we slowly make our way through this decade and into the unknown future, it is clear that renewable energy and particularly solar energy are the future, while fossil fuels are inferiors that must be left in the past.