Does solar have the power to solve our energy crisis?

Some of you will be familiar with the impressive fact from the National Geographic that every hour the sun beams onto Earth more than enough energy to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year!

Surely then solar power is more than capable of meeting all of our energy needs? In theory this is true but as always there are practical issues to consider.

Over the past few years the solar industry has struggled to convince politicians and investors that large-scale solar is the way forward for our future grid supply. Now with a number of privately owned solar farms delivering proven successful results the government has begun to take notice.

In a recent speech at the Solar Roadshow Greg Barker stated that he hopes solar PV will be providing around 20GW of our electricity by the 2020s. This week the UK hit a new record for solar installed capacity, which now stands at 2GW. The 20GW target will require a capacity that is 10 times greater than this – an ambitious target to achieve in just 7 years!

climate change

Energy Secretary Ed Davey also recently commented

“we must listen to the scientists on climate change and bring new energy sources to the market.” 

Renewables will play a vital role in helping us to meet our climate change targets and Ed Davey even went so far as to quote this well-known climate carton by Joel Pett to highlight the benefits of adopting the sustainable approach.

So politicians are finally starting solar power seriously but how do we actually deliver a system that is large enough to meet our energy demands? There are several major challenges we must first overcome:

Cost – solar PV has always been viewed as an expensive technology but competition in the solar market in recent years has resulted in a drastic fall in installation prices. A solar PV system installed today costs less than half of what it did two years ago and it is likely that this cost could fall even further as we develop more affordable technologies for capturing energy from the sun.

Many worry that investing in renewables will significantly add to our utility bills but do we really want to take the risk of continuing our reliance on a volatile fossil fuel market? Energy bills rose by up to 25% annually in the last two years and it has become apparent that we can no longer afford depend on imported fuel. In an attempt to cling onto our traditional gas supply the government has announced controversial investment in fracking. This could hinder the transition to a renewable energy supply and experts have already highlighted concerns not only for our environment but for our energy prices too.

On the positive side, recent research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Australia found that unsubsidised renewable energy actually provides cheaper energy than newly built gas or coal plants.

Intermittency and storage –  like most renewables, solar PV’s biggest flaw is intermittency i.e. an irregular supply of electricity because the panels only produce a yield when the sun is shining. If we are to seriously invest in a solar electricity supply then we must first overcome this challenge with suitable storage technology.

Many researchers and manufacturers are working hard to win the race to find the most viable solution for renewable energy storage so we could see new schemes underway in the not too distant future.

Efficiency and space – renewable energy critics will often complain of the low efficiency rates of solar PV panels, which are currently around 15% (see our blog about PV efficiency), but when your fuel source is drawn from an infinite supply then this is only really an issue in terms of space. The great thing about solar PV is that systems are flexible and easily scalable. You can fix a solar PV system to an existing roof that is flat or pitched, or build a ground-mount system that points directly towards the sun.

When Greg Barker announced the new band of ROC rates for building mount solar PV systems in April 2013, he said “[it] will deliver a step change for the industry, enabling installations on supermarkets, warehouses, large office buildings and car parks… We want to see onsite generation become the norm, not the exception.”

If you would like to know more about the ROCs financial scheme you can read our helpful 1-page guide here.

Solar PV has many benefits that make it an ideal candidate as a sustainable energy solution:

  • Captures a renewable energy source that does not produce greenhouse gases
  • Manufactured from abundant silicon
  • Flexible and scalable – suitable for a range of environments
  • Long system lifetime with minimal maintenance required
  •  An ‘energy payback’ of 2 years or less

We won’t bore you with all the details why solar PV is so wonderful but if you are interested you can read more about the advantages of solar technology here.

Whilst it is unlikely that solar power alone will be able to meet our future energy demands it will no doubt contribute a significant portion of our energy investment in the coming years. The future of our solar industry is looking bright!