Where Is Solar Energy Headed?

Where Is Solar Energy Headed?

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On January 26, 2017 the German Solar Association released its estimates that global installed photovoltaic capacity has reached 300 gigawatts. The Association celebrated this announcement, heralding solar energy as a promising form of renewable energy. In fact, CEO of the German Solar Association Carsten Körnig remarked that “The utilization of solar power has really picked up momentum in many countries around the world. As the global thirst for energy increases, more and more governments and investors are committing to clean forms of energy.”

Photo caption: Germany is committing to extending the renewable energy sector. Yet, solar power plants like the power plant Leipziger Land in Espenhain, Germany, are also prone to seasonal variation in their energy production capacity. (Photo credit: GEOSOL Gesellschaft für Solaranergie mbH / Wikimedia)

Yet, according to a study by Agora Energiewende (a German think tank focused on energy policy), much of Germany’s electricity supply still comes from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, especially during the winter months when there is minimal sunlight coupled with increased electricity demand as families heat their homes. In fact, nonrenewable energy sources provided for roughly 90% of Germany’s national electricity use on January 24, 2017 -- just two days before the German Solar Association published its optimistic press release!

So where exactly does the potential of solar energy stand, in Germany, the United States, and worldwide? On the one hand, we have a report from the German Solar Association proclaiming that solar energy is our energy source of the future. On the other hand, seasonal variation seems to be a real obstacle to the viability of solar energy in Germany -- barring innovations that allow long-term storage of energy in photovoltaic panels. With all of this in mind, how much hope for solar energy is there?

This post is a follow up to my article on the solar industry from March 2016. Check it out here!

In my opinion, there are a number of promising developments that point to a great deal of potential in solar energy.

First is an awesome invention out of Albuquerque, New Mexico called Dragon SCALEs. When you think of solar panels today, you probably imagine a bunch of huge panels somewhere in the middle of a desert.

Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is developing flexible, miniature solar cells that could present a portable and versatile solution for different applications. (Photo credit: National Nuclear Security Administration via Flickr)

However, Sandia National Laboratories (pictured above) and mPower Technology Inc. have teamed up to create flexible, miniature solar cells so portable and versatile that they can be used by consumers for camping and emergency response equipment, in addition to deployment on spacecraft and vehicles. The product has been nicknamed ‘solar glitter,’ possibly an homage to its sleek and trendy design. While the partnership between Sandia National Laboratories and mPower Technology Inc. is still in early stages and the product has not yet been brought to market, mPower Technology Inc. has invested $1 million in the project. It will be particularly exciting to see how Dragon SCALEs, if successfully developed, might straddle consumer and utility uses.»I like pizza. I really do.«

»The product has been nicknamed 'solar glitter,' possibly an homage to its sleek and trendy design.«

A second exciting innovation comes from Elon Musk, renowned technology entrepreneur and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. In November 2016, Tesla acquired SolarCity; shortly thereafter, Musk announced the invention of a new solar roof product -- photovoltaic panels constructed of textured glass that he says will eventually replace traditional roof shingles. While Tesla estimated that its new panels currently cost 20 times as much as inexpensive asphalt shingles, Musk has stated that lower shipping and logistics costs for his invention will quickly make them affordable at mass scale. Like the Dragon SCALEs product out of New Mexico, Tesla’s solar shingles seem promising in that they can break into the household/individual consumer market, hopefully bringing awareness to the value of green power and solar energy.

Ultimately, it’s important to realize that the deployment of any time of renewable energy relies on a number of factors: governmental support, reliable and continuous financing, invention and ingenuity, and public optimism. Over the past decade or so, solar energy has evolved to be a prominent component of the global energy pie, yet there is still more work to be done. Hopefully, future technological innovations by bright young minds devoted to making widespread solar energy a reality will allow this progress to continue!

Brandon Greenblatt is a student majoring in Science, Technology, and International Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and originally from North Carolina. Brandon is no stranger to writing and publishing as the former editor of the Western Europe section of The Caravel, Georgetown's international affairs newspaper.