The Rise of Solar Energy

“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t going away,” once proclaimed the king of rock and roll Elvis Presley. And in the face of a warming planet, exacerbated by the creation of continued greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we can be grateful for this truth. For the sun, that truly wondrous thing in the sky, just beyond the clouds, is responsible for a clean energy revolution unfolding before our eyes.

This year, the use of solar power – largely using photovoltaic (PV) panels that capture the sun’s energy before converting it into useful electricity – is more than double the amount it was globally in 2014, according to GTM Research. In China, demand exceeded 34 gigawatts last year, pushing global installed solar capacity just over 78 gigawatts – up from 51 gigawatts in 2015.

In the US, installations of solar power technology doubled between 2015 and 2016 and, for the first time, such installations formed the largest group of electricity generating capacity of any energy source, according Greentech Media. In fact, almost 40% of new power generation projects added last year were solar, with a record 22 states each adding more than 100 megawatts.

The US now boasts more than 1.3 million solar installations with a cumulative capacity of over 40 gigawatts – enough energy to power 6,5 million households.

The popularity of solar is understandable. The sun is able to generate electricity with no pollution, no fuel costs, and no risk of a spike in fuel prices. While small-scale solar PV systems, typically on rooftops, account for the majority of solar installations, the larger, industrial-scale PVs and concentrating solar power (CSP) systems make up the majority of solar’s overall electricity-generating capacity. Where there’s sunshine there is scope to make energy, essentially for free.

Thanks to economies of scale, the adoption of solar as a commercially viable clean energy alternative to fossil-fuel based systems is on rise. According to the US Department of Energy, solar panels have hit a median price of about one dollar per watt and $0.06 per kilowatt-hour – a price that hits a milestone set by the department’s Sunshot Initiative in 2010 as part of a larger effort to make solar power competitive with other sources of energy.

And this is thanks a range of factors, not least growing market competition and general efficiency improvements in the way panels are made and installed. A wealth of government grants and finance options has also made solar attractive to both individuals and businesses.

Big improvements in battery technologies – in many ways piggybacking innovation in the electric vehicle market – will also see the use of solar systems even in regions that do not experience reliable sunshine.

With such technological advances and falling costs, it is no wonder the business community has perked up its interest in solar technology.

One of the more progressive examples of a company getting to grips with the opportunity presented by clean energy is the Swedish furniture retailer IKEA which is now selling solar panels and home batteries to its UK customers. The company has teamed up with the solar firm Solarcentury to offer solar battery storage systems (starting at £3,000) which are designed to work with either existing solar panels, or as part of a new combined system. It claims the average UK home will typically consume around 40% of the solar electricity it generates, with the remaining 60% of electricity able to be sold back to the National Grid, albeit at a loss when compared to its value.

Meanwhile, the business continues to make great use of the enormous rooftops covering its 400+ stores worldwide. In the US, it is just completed its 48th store-top solar array at a store in Indiana. The company claims its rooftop solar systems provide 20-60% of a store’s energy needs, with the rest being drawn from the local utility grid.

Google is another business committed to making use of solar energy. It recently agreed to buy all of the electricity generated by the largest solar park in the Netherlands over the next decade to power one of its data centres. This year, it announced that 100% of its global operations – including data centres and offices – is powered by renewable energy , including solar.

Meanwhile, its Project Sunroof is supporting solar’s charge to dominate the clean energy space. You can use Google’s sophisticated mapping technology to check if yours is the only home or business in your neighbourhood not to have installed solar panels. Launched in 2015, the tool can tell you how much sunlight hits your rooftop, how much you could save by installing solar panels, and even offers up information on local installers.

Elsewhere, the sun’s capacity to do good has not been expended just yet. New research suggests that the process by which the sun turns vast expanses of open water, such as lakes and reservoirs, into vapour could be used to produce electricity – enough, in fact, to meet 70% of US energy needs. It also claims that ‘water evaporation farms’, though still hypothetical, could provide power densities three times greater than wind power.

It seems that the sun is not even near to setting on this particular clean energy revolution.