Saturday, January 05, 2008

Oil at $100 and more could make us closer to the sun...

New technology means solar power could one day provide all the world’s energy needs – but governments must do their bit.

Until a few years ago the suggestion that solar power might provide the answer to the intertwined problems of long term energy security and climate change would have been dismissed as a pipedream. The high cost of solar cells, their inefficiency in converting the sun’s rays into electricity and the lack of state investment or assistance for renewable energy start-ups meant there was little hope.

But now, thanks to some determined innovators, the rising cost of fossil fuels and the widespread realization about the damage they cause and some clever market regulation, a solar transition is rapidly become a reality.

In Germany, solar energy already provides 3 gigawatts of electricity, the equivalent of four large fossil fuel power stations. In 2003, the German government passed a law obliging energy companies to purchase solar energy from anyone who can produce it at nearly double the market price. The result? Homeowners and business flocked to buy photo voltaic (PV) cells and Germany’s 300,000 PV cells now account for nearly 60% of the world’s solar panels. This upsurge for demand for in solar technology has had the knock-on effect of stimulating research and development.

It is this technological development that is really exciting environmentalists. At the beginning of the decade PV cells rarely converted more than 5% of the sunlight they captured into electricity. Last year, researchers at the University of Delaware set a record with over 40% efficiency using new manufacturing techniques. While it obviously takes time for these developments to come to market, many commercially available PV cells now operate at around 20% efficiency. As a result of these increases in efficiency, the retail price of solar-generated electricity is rapidly approaching the prices of nuclear and gas-generated electricity in many parts of the world

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