TAPPING ON SOLAR ENERGY
by Per Sauer
Recent Developments in Photovoltaics
Emissions-free energy from the sun—what’s there not to like about solar photovoltaics (PV)? Traditionally, it has been the large upfront cost but times are a-changing; things have moved quickly in the solar PV industry in recent times. So quickly in fact that since 2008 the factory gate selling price of PV modules has reduced from over US$4 per watt to under US$1 per watt today. This is due to massive increases in production capacity, mainly from China; improved manufacturing techniques; and reductions in the cost of silicon, the main raw material. Over a similar period the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), which is used to compare the cost of producing electricity from various sources, has dropped nearly 50 percent to an average of around 17 cents per kWh.
The question now is not whether solar PV is economical or affordable but how to best fit it into the current system of producing, distributing and selling electricity alongside other means of generation, together with subsidy systems, reimbursements and feed-in tariffs. In some places where solar PV uptake has been high, this has led to a phenomenon known as the “death spiral”. The term is used to describe the cycle of increasing electricity prices from traditional networks due to uptake of distributed renewable energy reducing the customer base over which grid upkeep costs are spread. As grid prices increase this encourages more PV uptake and so the cycle continues. The term literally describes the death of the traditional energy distribution model as we know it due to the uptake of distributed renewable energy. It is important to note that in many places in Southeast Asia and the world retail electricity generated through conventional means (fossil fuels) is subsidised to make it more affordable for consumers. On a level playing field PV systems frequently have payback periods of less than 10 years, compared to PV module life of 25 years under warranty. While module prices cannot fall indefinitely they account for only half of the system cost; there is scope for further cost reductions in other components.
As prices fall and technology improves, opportunities exist for innovation in implementing solar PV throughout housing, offices, factories and even cities, as installation is not confined to buildings only. In integrating PV into building design huge benefits can be reaped in lowering building operating costs both in dollar terms and their impact on the environment. The challenge is to integrate PV in a way that adds to the overall performance, value and aesthetics of a building. Designs which increase people’s affinity to a building and its purpose ensure a longer and ultimately more productive building life. With PV now becoming a commonly affordable tool there is opportunity to change buildings from consumers of energy to being neutral or even contributing to the grid.
Previously Published 'Technology' (Abstracts)