Solar Power, Why Not?

By: Kip Olkowski

Deployment of Solar Power in the US with Current Technology
Widespread adoption of solar power has been met with very real concerns about cost and efficiency. The reality is that since their inception, the cost of solar panels has been decreasing rather steadily as technology improves and the production increases. As for efficiency, the most efficient solar panel on the market today is only able to convert 22.5% of sunlight into electricity, with the majority of solar panels operating around 14%-16%. For comparison, wind turbines are typically more efficient with a conversion rate closer to 45%(theoretical limit of 59%), Coal fired power plants range from 32%-42%, and water turbines are at their theoretical limit of 90% efficient. With the inefficiencies of solar power in mind, scientist from the University of California-Irvine set out to determine the viability of wind and solar power are as replacements to fossil fuel. They were able to show that the combination of wind a solar power could provide 80% of the Annual US electricity demand. It is worth noting that we could produce 100% of the energy demand in the US, but we don’t have the ability to store power when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing.

Flow chart of solar panel converting solar energy into electrical energy


What about Policy? 

The study done at the University of California-Irvine is meant to address the presupposed technological and economic limitations in the wind and solar industries. Another layer of inefficiencies exists in the realm of policy around renewable energy. A study at Stanford claimed that the US is in need of policy that supports the growth of the solar industry and an increased deployment of solar panels in the private and public sectors. This top down support could involve funding research in solar cells, or creating programs that incentivize the installation of solar panels through financing options and potential tax breaks. The study presents China as an example of how policy can support the manufacturing and deployment of solar energy in an industry driven nation. By looking at other nations as precedents the US can form a policy that reflects the realities of globalization while adopting tested programs and technology.

If you are considering solar panels, Google has an interesting engine built in called a "Solar savings estimator" where you can provide your location and a program calculates how financially feasible a solar array is for your home over a 20 year period. It does so by utilizing data from nearby weather stations and determining available daylight hours. Tools like this are important because it does not make sense to install solar panels in every climate. My home is in Portland, Oregon which is a temperate climate with lots of overcast days, so solar panels may not be the best option for my home.