Photovoltaics and the Greening of Electricity

Photovoltaic PanelsI finally know what I’m going to be when I grow up, and it’s the same career I decided on 30 years ago, then abandoned. When I graduated from high school in the late 1970s, I knew for sure that the world needed energy. And since oil was obviously going to run out, I enrolled in George Brown College to become an alternative energy guru. Photovoltaics (PV) was one of my favorite topics. That’s those flat panels you put in the sun to make electricity directly, without any moving parts.

There was one thing I didn’t realize as a brand-new college student. Except perhaps for calculators, the world wasn’t seriously ready for photovoltaics back then. In fact, the situation wouldn’t change until two things happened:

  1. Photovoltaics became cheaper.
  2. Oil became significantly more expensive.

I was obviously ahead of my time with regards to my career planning, but both those two trends have been happening lately, big-time. According to a report issued by the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute this past December, the magic moment when the cost of photovoltaic electricity drops to meet the price of fossil fuel production is just two years away. No one’s talking about this much, but it has huge and bright implications for the future.

Photovoltaic Potential

The production of PV panels worldwide has skyrocketed by about 48% a year each year since 2002. Right now there’s enough PV generated electricity in the world to power 2.4 million modern homes. And while this is still a drop in the bucket compared to the world’s total energy needs, you’ll be hearing more about photovoltaics in the near future. One reason is the huge potential.

  • Enough solar energy shines on the earth during a 40 minute period of time to power the entire world economy for a year.
  • We only need to harness a tiny portion of this sunshine to make a huge difference in the world: environmentally, politically and economically.
  • Production of PV electricity is not dependent on warm temperatures.
  • All PV electricity requires is open space and sunshine – both of which Canada has in abundance, especially, as it turns out, in those parts of western Canada now enjoying a fossil fuel boom.

All of this has several long term implications for you as a homeowner:

Greening of Electricity

  • One long term implication will be the greening of electricity as an energy source.
  • It used to be that electricity came to us at a very high (though somewhat hidden) environmental cost.
  • As wind generation is joined by sources of competitively priced photovoltaic power, electricity will truly become a clean source of energy.
  • We might even see electricity becoming the most socially responsible way to heat our homes.

Accessibility

  • Accessibility to electric power is another thing that cheap photovoltaics will change.
  • Industry analysts believe that the price of photovoltaics will drop to $1 per installed watt by 2010.
  • This would make the development of remote building sites and cottages less expensive and less visually disruptive as cables and pole line deforestation become unnecessary.
  • A lot has to change before a significant amounts of PV electricity is available on the grid. Besides the job of converting electricity directly from sunlight with photovoltaics, there’s the issue of building special transmission lines to deliver that power.

Progressive Countries

That said, the fact that PV power is poised to become competitive in world energy markets is terrific and encouraging news. It’s also being used to good advantage by the most progressive countries:

  • In March 2007, Spain began requiring all new, non-residential buildings to generate a portion of their electricity needs via photovoltaics.
  • China is poised to become the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic cells.
  • Germany now boasts more than 300,000 buildings with PV capability, and while it’s true that this is a product of government subsidies, these probably won’t be necessary for very much longer.

Too bad for me it all took 30 years too long to happen.

Posted on November 19th, 2010

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