Today, the world has about 15 TW of generation capacity. In 2050, it is projected that the world will need 30 TW of generation capacity. Our society is in the awkward position of having to generate more power without producing more CO2. It is clear to most people that climate change is directly driving the need for us to to generate clean energy.
This is where solar cells come into play. So why are solar cells the leading candidate to provide power for our future? Here are a few reasons:
1. The sun gives us 120,000 TW of power. With that kind of power output, we only need to cover 1% of the land to generate all of our energy needs (assuming 15% efficient solar cells which we have already manufactured with ease). Is it feasible to cover 1% of our land with something? We would say yes since in the USA, we have already covered 1% of the land with roads.
2. Solar cells are safe. There’s not much that can go wrong with solar cells. There’s no moving parts, no radiation, and minimal maintenance (even with snow). Contrast this with nuclear power plants which have the potential to undergo a fatal meltdown. The image below shows nuclear fuel which has melted and combined with concrete, piping, and other plant infrastructure. Even today, 30 seconds worth of exposure to the “elephant foot” in Chernobyl will cause dizziness and vomiting.
3. Solar cells provide electricity exactly when we need it the most. In most areas, peak electricity usage occurs on hot and sunny days when people are running their AC units on full blast. Sunny days also happen to coincide with high solar electricity generation. The graph below shows the electrical demand of a major population center during a typical day, and this matches up very well with the electricity generation curve of solar panels.
To help bring our solar powered future closer to reality, the US government has been working on a project called SunShot since 2011. The goal of the initiative is to make solar energy affordable for all through research and development of solar panel technology – and SunShot has made tremendous progress working alongside the solar industry.
In 2011, only 0.1% of the US electricity supply came from solar energy. This number has grown over 10X in five years, and roughly 1% of the total US electricity supply was generated by solar in 2016.
Project SunShot, and many commercial solar energy companies, are continuing to innovate and drive costs down. The industry hopes that the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) for solar panels will drop to 5 cents per kWh for residential customers by 2030. The graph below shows SunShot’s goals for each of the major markets for solar panels.
With current solar technology roadmaps, most industry observers feel that reaching the 2030 SunShot goal will not be an issue. While there are still hurdles (such as energy storage) to overcome, we are confident that the solar industry will continue to improve and grow at the tremendous pace it has been moving at over the last five years.