It’s about time human civilization has learned how to effectively capture energy from that big ball of fire. Harnessing the sun’s energy to produce electricity for homes and offices is finally a viable, affordable option. In this year’s third quarter alone, 1,354 megawatts of photovoltaic (PV) solar power capacity was installed—a 41% increase from the same time period in 2013. Even though solar makes up a mere 1% of U.S. electricity generation, research predicts that total installed capacity for 2014 will reach three times the size of the market in 2011. Solar is rising, and it is rising faster than you think.
Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are composed of solar cells—electrical devices that convert light energy into electricity. Solar cells created with silicon seem to be the most widely used today, but many companies and scientists have been in the lab trying to concoct a more efficient cell, and ultimately, solar panel system. In December, University of New South Wales (UNSW) researchers effectively converted over 40% of the sunlight hitting a solar system into electricity—setting a new record for the highest efficiency ever reported. UNSW professor Martin Green, a pioneer in photovoltaics, claims this new level of effectiveness is based on the use of focused sunlight. Harnessing this type of sunlight is made possible through an optical bandpass filter, which captures particular wavelengths normally wasted by commercial solar cells. After the prototyping phase is complete, pilot projects for this type of solar panel system can begin. Eventually, commercial solar plants that fully integrate this new form of solar technology will increase competitiveness and make solar cheaper.
SolarCity, the U.S. market leader for residential solar power, unveiled its first loan product in October. Now, instead of the standard power purchase agreement (PPA), where the host buys only the services produced by the company’s PV system installed, customers pay for the energy the system produces and retain ownership of the solar panels. SolarCity claims their new plan, named “MyPower,” is “Americas most affordable solar loan.” While MyPower is currently only available to customers in 8 states, it is still a giant leap forward for the increasingly affordable solar industry.
Vivint Solar, SolarCity’s residential solar competitor, aims to continue its expansion with more than 20 new sales and operations offices opening up in 2015. In the 2nd quarter of this year, Vivint and SolarCity together took over 50% of the market for the first time. If Vivint wants to stay in the race, it’s going to have to compete with SolarCity’s unique ownership-via-loans plan (MyPower).
Matthias Krause, in his summary on future solar trends, confirms what we’ve been reading and hearing rumors about for the past year: “the point of grid parity is approaching fast.” Grid parity occurs when an alternative energy source (the sun) can generate electricity at equal to or less than the price of purchasing power from the electricity grid. Krause, in his piece for GreenBiz, says, “Deutsche Bank analyst Vishal Shah predicts that by 2016 rooftop solar PV in the U.S. will be as cheap as, or cheaper than, electricity from the grid in all 50 states, setting the stage for a massive boom.” The solar revolution is here.
Paul Hawken, founder of Project Drawdown, says that future solar PV will be extremely low cost and lighter. He also claims that photovoltaics will soon gain “breathtaking” efficiency.