Solar power gets realistic

Posted on March 8, 2012


Solar PanelFor many years now, especially in the less glorious weather of places such as the United Kingdom, solar power has had the reputation of being expensive, inefficient and even unworkable – but that looks set to change with developments in industrial production. In some places, such as India, solar electrical power s now cheaper than that generated from the more common diesel geerators. The news, which will certainly boost India’s “Solar Mission” to install 20,000 Megawatts of solar power generation by 2022, could have implications for many other countries as well.

English: On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis...Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) analysis now shows that the cost of solar panels has fallen by almost 50% in 2011 so that they are now one quarter of the price they would have been as recently as 2008. That makes them a truly cost-effective option for many people close to the tropical regions of the planet. Currently, about a quarter of the population of India have no access to electricity according to the International Energy Agency 2011 World Energy Outlook report. Even those who are connected to the electricity grid experience frequent blackouts and loss of power, so the use of diesel generators for electricity wherever possible is widespread.

All of this comes at a cost – both in the purchase of the generator and the diesel fuel to run it and also in the carbon dioxide produced along with the costs of the climate change it causes. If that were not bad enough, there is also the issue of the health problems linked to their use from respiratory and heart disease all the way up to cancer. Now, with the cost reductions for solar power, all of this could be set to change. The electricity from solar electrical generation to the grid has fallen to a mere 8.78 rupees per kilowatt-hour while the cost for diesel generation is 17 rupees per kilowatt-hour: approximately double the cost of solar electrical power!

English: Solar PanelThis change has little or nothing to do with the legendary low efficiency of solar generation which still sits at a lousy 15% to 18% of solar energy to electricity, but everything to do with the economies of scale and improved production making the panels much cheaper to produce. So great is the reduction in panel costs that the operating ineficiency is no longer a sticking point for the practical use of solar generation. The scale changes are so great that in 2011 enough solar panels were produced world-wide to generate 27 Gigawatts compared with only 7.7 Gigawatts in 2009. In fact, the reduction in costs is so great that the report says solar power is now cheaper than diesel “anywhere as sunny as Spain.”

Such improvements may still leave those of us in the United Kingdom a little in the dark, even without Mr Cameron’s apparent dislike of anything that smacks of being actually good for people rather than good for big business, but does mean that vast areas of Latin America, Africa, Asia and even Mediterranean Europe could start adopting solar power on a much wider scale than before. “We have been selling to Asia and the Middle East,” says Bjorn Emde, European spokesman for Suntech, the world’s largest producer of silicon solar panels. Over the next several years he expects to add South Africa and Nigeria to that list as well.

Three Gorges damThe one thing stopping households buying a solar panel,” Amit Kumar, director of energy-environment technology development at The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi says, “is the cost.” Even with the reduced production costs for solar panels, they are still more expensive than a diesel generator, but the savings on fuel and lower costs of the electricity produced mean that they become cheaper than diesel after only seven years use. Solar panels last for around 25 years giving buyers more than 15 years of cheap electricity for their initial investment.

Even in India though, electricity on the grid – suppllied by coal-fired generators – remains half the cost of solar electricity although that might soon change. The price drop in 2011 may be exceptional, but analysts agree that it will keep getting cheaper to produce while coal will keep getting more expensive. Suntech’s in-house analysts predict that by 2015 solar electricity will be as cheap as grid supply in half of all nations. When that happens, we can expect to see solar panels wherever we go – perhaps even here in less than sunny Britian.