January 28, 2009
When the Age of Fossil Fuels is over, Earth’s future historians will look back on this extremely short and exceptional period of human history which ushered in the Solar Age.
Solar photovoltaics (PV) is still new. The first cell, created in 1954, was just 6% efficient. Today’s commercially available PV cells are 20% efficient, and laboratory-based PV cells have reached 42.8%. Japan, Germany and California have been carrying the weight for the rest of world, accelerating the drive towards mass production by investing public money in subsidies and rate supports.
As a result of its Feed Law that pays 70 to 90 cents per kilowatt hour to solar producers, Germany has over 300,000 installed PV systems, mostly on rooftops, representing 55% of the world’s solar electricity (but still only 0.5% of Germany’s electricity).
The energy that Earth receives from the Sun is such that covering half of Texas - 300,000 sq km – with solar cells could generate enough electricity to meet the energy needs of the entire world, including for heat and transport.
The cost of solar has always been the hold-up. From $100 a watt in 1970, it now costs around $5, and when it falls to $2 a watt – which the industry believes can happen by 2015 - it will be competitive with other forms of electricity.
Greenpeace has estimated that by 2040, solar PV could generate 24% of the world’s electricity needs, assuming a moderate increase in energy efficiency – and not assuming any of the technical breakthroughs that are lining up, including thin-film cells that are less efficient but far cheaper because they can be printed like newspaper, and nanosolar developments.
What’s needed to accelerate things? A Global Solar Treaty, in which every nation agrees to increase its solar capacity by a set amount each year as we collectively drive towards that 24% goal, or higher. This will give investors the confidence they need to get involved.
Here in BC, we need to adopt the same Feed Laws that Germany uses, charging a small surcharge on our utility bills and using the income to pay 80 cents/kwh to solar producers – yes, ten times the going rate for power. That’s what it takes to accelerate a new technology.
The BC government is happy to pay $200 million a year to the oil and gas industry. $25 million a year to the solar PV industry would do what it takes to get us started.
First published in EcoNews: A monthly newsletter funded by your donations that dreams of a world blessed by the harmony of nature, the pleasures of community, and the joys of personal fulfillment, guided and protected by our active citizenship.