Solar power appears to have the potential to deliver significant energy and yet it currently only delivers approximately one percent of the world´s energy. It has been argued that by the middle of the 21st century, solar power could deliver the majority share of electricity in the world, particularly using roof top “photovoltaic systems”, but there is still a way to go to get there, and several hurdles to overcome.
There have been some important recent steps in the right direction. In an article written for Stanford Soial Innovation Review, researcher Katz, mentions some of the new options that can boost the alternative energy sector. A possibility is that silicon panels may get replaced by what Katz describes as:
“A new generation of super-efficient, low-cost sunlight harvesters.”
One of the most hopeful technologies in this regard, Katz explains to be cells made with miniscule but very powerful quantum dots that absorb solar. These have the potential to considerably increase the use of solar power, though there are some challenges to overcome in this regard, particularly in finding ways to help these materials be able to deal with the elements. These dots are considered to be more efficient than the techniques of the past, though it is acknowledged that there is “lots of room for improvement”. If the improvements are made, 50 percent efficiency could arguably be achieved, and this has the chance to make solar power more affordable.
In the USA the IEA has increased its targets for solar electricity and aims to deliver 50 percent that way by the year 2050, explains Katz. It is also estimated that by 2030 solar will provide 14 percent of electricity in the USA. One hope in reaching this objective is the developments in the area of perovskites. These are minerals that are easy and cheap to make and which can be extraordinarily efficient at turning the sun’s light into electricity (Katz, 2014). This is a very recent development, since perovskite started to be used in 2009 and has only really gained traction since its quality has improved, since 2012 (Katz, 2014). Current levels of efficiency are estimated at being between 20 and 24 percent. Perovskite has a number of advantages, one of which being that it is possible to paint it onto substrates like plastic, and this means that there is enormous flexibility to create light, bendable solar panels that are not expensive.
Perovskite is not all good news, unfortunately, and one of the considerable problems to overcome at the current time is the fact that its crystals break down when faced with humidity (Katz, 2014). Clearly this is an important problem to resolve. As a result of this, some scientists are researching other ways in which perovskite may be used. One such example is given as being “layering perovskite onto silicon”. It is estimated that it could take at least ten years to deal with the problems that perovskite has, and that it may not necessarily be possible to deal with these challenges at all.
Some people argue that other approaches need to be used. Another option under investigation is gallium arsenide, which Katz explains has the ability to absorb sunlight much more powerfully than silicon, with estimates as high as a thousand times better. It is explained how two such cells have already been found to achieve 30 percent efficiency and it is hoped that this could ultimately get to 50 percent (Katz, 2014). Indeed the aim by some researchers is to get to between 30 percent and 50 percent efficiency. Achieving this is argued to require the ability to “find the proper way to split the solar spectrum into pieces.” The problem with this approach however is that it is costly because the material is expensive, though as Katz explains, prices have dropped before for other solutions and this could also happen in this case.
However, a significant challenge that solar faces is that clean energy is given a low priority with regard to research and development, and Katz explains that developed countries spend far more on defence, in some cases up to six times more than on research in energy. If there is insufficient commercial interest in some technologies then they may be less likely to get funding. Organisations or other investors need to be able to understand what the benefits are in order to have an interest in investing. Energy policies also do not always encourage research. In Europe it is reported by Katz to be better than in the USA. Nonetheless, there is a belief that solar energy use will continue to rise.
Paula Newton is a business writer, editor and management consultant with extensive experience writing and consulting for both start-ups and long established companies. She has ten years management and leadership experience gained at BSkyB in London and Viva Travel Guides in Quito, Ecuador, giving her a depth of insight into innovation in international business. With an MBA from the University of Hull and many years of experience running her own business consultancy, Paula’s background allows her to connect with a diverse range of clients, including cutting edge technology and web-based start-ups but also multinationals in need of assistance. Paula has played a defining role in shaping organizational strategy for a wide range of different organizations, including for-profit, NGOs and charities. Paula has also served on the Board of Directors for the South American Explorers Club in Quito, Ecuador.