Future of solar energy: how power of the Sun will transform our lives

Green Technologies

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The solar energy industry is developing everyday: the biggest renewable energy companies invest millions of dollars in solar power innovations. A modern solar cell converts 96% more energy that the first invented could, and this number is increasing.

Solar panels are used everywhere: from private homes to huge industry facilities and even outer space. And when the new sustainability trend came, along with new energy issues we need to deal with, the demand on solar energy continues to increase. So, what is the future of solar energy?

Future of solar power

Solar energy may play a much larger role in the global energy system by the middle of 21st century. While we meet a long-term threat of global climate change caused by CO2 emissions, about two-thirds of which are associated with electricity generation, heating, and transportation, solar energy may be a solution. We must cut the emissions now, and do it as fast as we can, because it is expected that in 50 years of doing nothing our planet becomes 3 degrees Celsius warmer. This number may not seem terrifying, but on a global scale it makes a huge difference: melting glaciers, destroyed ecosystems, extincting species, hunger, etc. 

But what about other green and renewable sources of energy, e.g. nuclear, wind or biomass energy? Well, reports show that solar energy is the most profitable solution. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently modeled several scenarios in which global energy-related CO2 emissions are cut to less than half of 2011 levels by 2050. It was assumed that the implementation of technologies reducing emissions will be done at the least cost. Turns out that if the global demand for electricity rises by 79% between 2011 and 2050, solar energy would supply 27% of this demand out of the 66% supplied by green energy. The expansion of hydroelectric facilities may be limited, as it already is in the US, so solar energy may play even a greater role in supplying electricity.

What is the future of solar energy?

Recent studies from Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) show that solar is the fastest-growing source of energy in America. There are almost 23 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar capacity nationwide, which is enough to provide almost 5 million households with green and sustainable energy. The average price of a residential system has dropped by 50% since 2013. Nowadays, 174,000 Americans work in country’s solar energy industry and bring nearly $18 billion annually. 

Future of the industry really depends on uncertain market and political circumstances. The US quitting Paris agreement, new technologies that may replace solar, etc. – there is a lot to deal with. At the same time, Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, believes that the company’s energy business Tesla Solar will grow and overcome the automotive sector which brings up to $5,3 billion per quarter. “It could be bigger, but it will certainly be of a similar magnitude,” – Elon Musk. 

Solar energy innovations

The biggest problem with today’s solar panels is their efficiency. Around 70% of solar radiation is lost even in the perfect circumstances. So, modern solar engineering works with the creation of innovative solar technology which will solve this issue. 

One of the suggestions is to use hardware that allows the solar cells to capture more light by tracking the sun and move after it, just like sunflowers do. When the solar cells points directly at the sun, it gathers much more photons than the static one. There is a major disadvantage of this technology, though. The complicated design and technology makes it expensive and fragile, and as a result, not reasonable at all. An alternative to making the solar cell itself move is to use mirrors to focus light on a smaller, and therefore cheaper solar cell.

Another way of making solar cells more efficient is to simply add some layers of light-capturing material. The more material there is, the more photons panel gathers. Some of the prototypes of these innovative solar panels with 4 layers of material could catch 46% of the photons, instead of 33% in regular panels. The problem remains the same: at the moment, these panels are too expensive, too fragile and too hard to produce. 

But what if we use another material?

For almost 70 years, since the first solar panels appeared on the market, silicon has been used for producing solar cells. But turns out that silicon is very inefficient at creating usable energy, so scientists are seeking for new materials. 

Perovskite (CaTIO3) is a naturally occurring mineral that has a clue feature for solar energy: superconductivity. Perovskites can be synthetically produced, which makes them potentially cheaper and easier to work with than silicone. The efficiency of solar cells with perovskites has increased by 17% up to 20,1% since 2012. This progress looks really promising and this technology may open new ways to improve the solar technologies. 

The only problem with perovskite is that perovskites decompose far too quickly, which makes these solar panels not long-lasting at all: they work only for 2-3 years. If this would be solved, there will for sure be a revolution on solar market, bringing it even more growth and a greater variety in solar energy production.

Floating Solar Farms

Floating solar farm
Aerial view of the world’s largest floating solar energy plant with a capacity of 40 megawatts of energy in Huainan city, east China’s Anhui province, 7 June 2017. Source https://www.nrdc.org/

It may sound strange, but floating solar farms do exist. Instead of placing a solar station somewhere on a field, Chinese entrepreneurs founded world’s largest floating solar farm. It produces enough energy to power 15,000 homes. Sustainable technology becomes even more sustainable as the panels are naturally cooled by the ocean and no agricultural land is needed to build a solar facility. This idea may bring and develop solar energy in areas where there is not enough land to build a large solar station. 

Fancy solar roof from Tesla?

Tesla solar rooftop
Tesla solar rooftop consists of PV panels that look just like any other rooftop panel

When it comes to combining technologies and great design, no one can compete with Tesla. If someone was worried about installing a solar rooftop because of its appearance, he/she needs to take a look at this solution from Tesla! This design has nearly reached the point where you can’t even tell that there are any solar panels installed at all.

It consists of PV panels that look just like any other rooftop panel. These tiles are 3x stronger than the standard roof tiles, and monitor the solar energy 24/7. You can set up and control all of your Tesla products, including rooftop and cars, through your phone! This really shows the future of solar technologies: they are so implemented in our lives that we barely even notice them! Tesla Solar rooftop also demonstrates how built into surface could solar technologies be.

Solar paint

Solar paint looks like a regular paint, but in fact it consists of billions of pieces of light sensitive material that makes it an energy-capturing paint. It could be applied to any surface and turn it into a tiny solar energy facility. This technology only requires a technician to set up the system after you apply the paint, which makes it cheap and easy to install. 

 Solar paint is not popular now because of its efficiency: it can gather only 3-8% of solar radiation. This leads to small potential commercial success: an average solar panel captures 18% of solar power. But this technology still looks interesting enough, and if the scientists manage to increase the efficiency of solar paint, it can be a real breakthrough in the industry. 

Some of the future possibilities of solar energy

Solar energy is not only about the facilities connected to the grid, installing panels on your rooftop or using a solar power bank. There are some ways of using solar energy that are developing right now. For example, the usage of solar energy to heat water directly is being discussed in the industry because it may deal with the inefficiency problem of the panels and bring not only warmth and electricity to our homes and facilities, but also warm water that can be used as a power generator, too. Technology is also actively developing in the areas where the natural gas and electricity is expensive.

Another interesting way of using solar energy is making fuel out of it. This fuel can be storable and is produced without generating electricity first, which reduces the emissions of CO2 from transportations and makes the energy cheaper for the consumer. The technology is still developing.

So, the future of solar energy appears to be bright and interesting. This developing technology may really solve a lot of ecological and economical struggles all over the world, so investing money and efforts in making solar energy more efficient and affordable is a priority of huge companies in the US, Europe and Asia.

Environmental consultant

Kate is an environmental consultant specializing on green technologies and nature preservation techniques. She has more than 3 years of experience and worked with several non-profit organizations to save our nature from disruptive influence of people.

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