With a dynamic industry such as the energy sector, constant changes in technology, efficiency, and manufacturing dictate how a market responds and plans for the future. It makes sense; why ride a horse and buggy when you can get an automobile? Why use oil lamps when you can use LED bulbs? Many are now asking a similar question: Why go solar now when the future could bring a new generation of more advanced photovoltaic systems? It's a fair question, especially when you look at the trajectory in solar advancements in recent decades. In 1954, the first silicon solar panel was created, which had an approximate efficiency of 6%. It took until 2010 before the average commercial panel produced at around 12%. Today, panel efficiencies are approximately 17-19%, while many panels are even higher in the low 20%-range. This begs the question (or a host of questions really): how efficient can panels get? How long will they take to get there? How will costs change over this transition? A recent article from BBC tries to provide some clarity in an constantly changing field, and attempts to tackle these hard hitting questions.
In 2010, there were about 20 gigawatts of solar capacity globally. Today, thirty times that capacity exists, with an additional 105 gigawatts expected to add to this by 2021. The majority of these panels are made in China and Taiwan, where super thin slices of silicon are arranged into a solar energy capturing panel. However, it appears we are approaching a plateau as we come close to the maximum theoretical efficiency available in silicon panels. As stated in the BBC article, "The Shockley-Queisser limit marks the maximum efficiency for a solar cell made from just one material, and for silicon this is about 30%."To get past this number, we have to get creative, or in other words, things get expensive and uncertain.
Researchers have already looked ahead to new photovoltaic technologies, whether that be the super-thin perovskite-based solar cell, a hybrid cell with multiple materials (multi-junction cell), or using hexagonal lenses to collect and concentrate solar rays onto traditional silicon-based panels. The issue is, these technologies are either so new that there is still great uncertainty to their longevity, they still require more research and development, or are cost-prohibitive for the time being. Much like conventional silicon panes that date back to the 50's, it will be some time before these new technologies start to approach there optimal performance at a reasonable cost to manufacture. There is a big difference between managing a 29% efficiency model one time in the lab compared to proving the products longevity, ensuring economically feasible mass production, and establishing a standard of installation and maintenance. That being said, the more we can invest into the renewable energy sector and research and development for these technologies, the sooner they will become widely available and viable. For now, most people and companies will still find traditional solar remains as one of the best ways to produce renewable energy at a reasonable cost.
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