By David Glenn
The 2014 Annual National Solar Conference is being held July 6–10 at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco. There, established minds and up-and-coming experts will address new developments in the field of solar energy. But come on. The photovoltaic effect—the basic process that allows for the harnessing of solar radiation for electrical energy needs—has been old news for about 175 years, and the first commercial solar cells hit the market during the mid 1950s, is there really anything new about solar cells that will be worth discussing in 2014?
Well, yes, actually. And the thoughts that the experts bounce around will have the potential to really change the world, and not only for governments and corporations, but for everyday homeowners. See, solar power may be old news, but it’s news that residents around the world are finally starting to embrace. Below are three reasons that solar power is poised to become the next big thing in 2014 and beyond.
1. Decreased Costs
With the possible exception of mustache-twirling supervillains, pretty much everyone would like to see the the negative human impact on the environment reduced. The problem is that, while distant fears of ecological collapse may weigh heavily upon us while we’re watching Al Gore films, when we get back to our everyday lives, we’re faced with more immediate concerns, such as securing food, shelter, and clothing for ourselves and our families. Yes, it may make us sound selfish, but with a limited income, most people will choose to take care of their own immediate needs before they address the needs of the planet. Classically, the most obvious deterrent to the widespread adoption of solar power has been its cost. Thankfully, that’s all changing. Between 1977 and 2013, the overall cost associated with solar power dropped an amazing 99%. And this hasn’t been a gradual decline either. It has dropped 60% since the beginning of 2011. The point is that the initial costs of installing and maintaining solar panels is lower than ever before, and pretty soon homeowners are going to start wondering why they’re paying so much for city power when they could be getting it from the sun for a fraction of the cost.
Julie Jacobson, Editor-at-large at CE Pro, offered further insight into why solar costs are decreasing. She said, “The challenge several years ago was not just the price – what with all of the overly generous utility and government subsidies – but the access. It was a complicated mess with high up-front costs and multiple vendors and contractors. The process today is streamlined, as providers have honed their sales and installation process.” Now, solar companies like Vivint, SolarCity, and other startups have simplified the buying and installation process for solar panels, so customers merely have to set up a free installation to get started.
Furthermore, a period of solar panel overcapacity quickly brought down solar panel prices. Even with that period now over, prices have continued to trend down a bit. But the “soft costs” are the main aim for solar power reductions now.
2. New Advances in Technology
With more of the world’s attention focused on the advancement of renewable energy sources than ever before, some of the greatest minds on the planet have been taking a long, hard look at our current solar technologies, and they’ve managed to locate a fews points of potential improvement. For one thing, they’re concentrating on improving materials to make solar cells more and more efficient (with the most advanced cells currently in existence able to reach efficiency levels of over 40%). Of course, the most efficient cells are still very expensive, but as progress is made and new techniques are implemented, cheaper cells will also improve. Likewise, new materials (such as perovskites) are becoming even cheaper to manufacture, more efficient at converting energy, and could eventually supplant current silicon cells by absorbing only specific wavelengths of light—thus making it possible to “layer” semi-transparent sheets to increase the amount of energy being generated. And of course there are also recent breakthroughs in battery technology to consider. The point is that as technology continues to improve upon existing solar energy systems, more homeowners will begin to see solar power as not only viable, but as crucial to their existing energy needs.
3. Increased Awareness
From October 2010 to December 2013, the average cost of city-provided energy in the United States rose an astonishing 37% according to Citizens Advice. At the same time, with advances in technology and materials, the average costs associated with solar power have been going down (as was pointed out in point #1). The result of these two factors is that homeowners are beginning to look for effective alternatives to conventional energy, and they’re beginning to realize that solar power is the answer.
Of course, the upfront costs of installing solar cells still averages $17,056 in the US, which is too much money for many residents to be able to spend all at once, even if the resultant savings more than make up for the costs. This is why certain companies have begun to “lease” solar energy to customers. This basically involves homeowners allowing a company to install solar paneling on the home at no charge. The panels then produce energy, which the homeowner buys from the company at a substantially reduced price. As a result, the homeowner is able to save money on monthly utility bills, without having to worry about any of the upfront costs associated with panel purchase, installation, or maintenance. As Julie Jacobson, editor-at-large of CE Pro, points out: “The savings in these scenarios are far less than investing in one’s own system, but the homeowner still saves 10 to 20 percent on their energy bills with virtually no hassle and no risk.” The end result is that average citizens are beginning to take notice. In 2012, rooftop solar installations saw a 62 percent increase over 2011 installations, and almost double the installed capacity added in 2010 according to Center for American Progress reports.
So, it looks as though solar power may be seeing an unprecedented surge in 2014, only 175 years after the photovoltaic effect was first identified. Well, better late than never, right?
David Glenn is a retired businessman and home improvement expert with a passion for technology and the environment. He loves the outdoors, spending time with his family, and keeping up with the latest gadget release.