Francesco Mazzagatti on the Future of Solar Power

Parallel to the predicted surge in wind power over the next decade, as discussed in this article, is an equally significant series of developments in solar power. Unlike in wind power, where the primary spur for growth is short-term favourable economic conditions, it is technological advances that are the main support for the growth of the solar power industry. It is important to note that solar energy is a much faster growing area of energy production than wind power is, with more power generating capacity (98 GW) coming from solar alone than wind, nuclear and hydro-electric (82 GW) combined in 2017. As such, solar energy and its future needs to be looked at differently from other renewable sources of energy, it is not a developing area but a significant one in its own right.

The single most significant recent development in solar energy is the invention of Solar Thermal Fuel (STF). The main issue with solar power has always been one of storage, that the power generated could not be efficiently or cheaply stored. Since last year, however, the development of STF has created a solution that would be able to store solar energy for up to 18 years, and could convert it into thermal energy with no carbon emissions. Similar to a rechargeable battery, STF even in its current primitive form would vastly increase the efficiency of using solar power, and it is a system that could work on an individual basis, i.e. a household could generate its own energy through using STF rather than being reliant on an external energy source. Current prototypes can hold 250 watt-hours of energy per kilogram, and the release of the energy stored can heat water to 63 degrees Celsius. As such, even at such an early stage in development, STF could revolutionise domestic power consumption, and kickstart an entirely new generation of solar technology.

Alongside this are significant developments in Photovoltaic (PV) technology, which converts sunlight directly into energy, rather than using it to power a generator. PV is the field in which solar can claim a distinct edge over its competitors, as the technology is being developed in ways that allow it to be integrated into everyday life, rather than being isolated in power stations. For example, this year had seen innovation in developing ‘solar textiles’, weaving solar panels into fabric items such as curtains that can allow sustainable household energy production to be integrated into existing goods. Similarly, PV technology has been applied to the creation of ‘solar roadways’, with tests carried out along Interstate 66 in the United States this year. As well as providing a power boost without having to build masses of new infrastructure, the development of solar roads allows for the energy to be used both as lighting, and as an anti-snow measure. This integration of solar technology is a field ripe for investment and development, and could well lead to an overall drop in energy prices as power generation becomes integrated into everyday life.

Together, these two parallel fields of development can show the future of solar power. Unlike wind power, in which advancement is focused on expanding its share of global energy production in physical terms, where solar energy can revolutionise power consumption is in integrating itself into normal life. Both STF and the developments in PV technology can rapidly speed up the switch to renewable energy, by taking advantage of existing infrastructure and becoming part of the fabric of everyday life. Solar technology will not just replace old methods of power generation, it will give individuals more control over their energy use and it could well change the way we live.

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