“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus –
When he said the world was round…
They all laughed at Edison recording sound.”
– Ira Gershwin, 1937
Fossil fuel supporters vehemently insist that when it comes to using oil, gas and coal, There Is No Alternative (this is known as the TINA position). For this group, solar and wind power can never meet our nation’s insatiable demand for energy.
Current incarnations of solar technology may not be able completely meet our energy, but concentrated photovoltaic, or CPV technology, has the potential to get us there in the near future.
It’s About Leverage
You’ve heard the old adage about not working harder, but working smarter? You work smarter by taking something – money, mechanical power or something else – and using that to leverage your position, multiplying it by several degrees. That’s the basis of CPV technology.
Concentrated voltaic systems are really quite simple. They concentrate a large amount of sunlight onto a small area, thereby leveraging the sun’s power and increasing energy output using fewer resources – in this case, solar cells.
The problem with solar cells is that they are expensive to produce. By focusing a great deal of sunlight onto a small area, fewer solar cells are required. This lowers the cost of building and operating a solar energy plant dramatically. The good news is that with the latest CPV technology using semiconductors, the cost of solar energy production is now close to $1 per watt; this means that before too much longer, concentrated voltaic power plants will be competitive with traditional coal, gas and oil-fired power plants.
The bad news is there are still some bugs to work out before solar power can completely replace traditional methods of energy generation.
Challenges To Overcome
As you might imagine, CPV technology works only in direct, hard sunlight – diffuse light (such as you experience on a cloudy day) won’t cut it. There’s good news here, however, because vast areas of the American Southwest get well over 300 days of sun every year. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont calls it the “Saudi Arabia of Solar.”
The other problem is that concentrated photovoltaic plants are very large and therefore must be placed in remote areas, far from the grid and transmission lines, making their installations expensive and time consuming. However, with huge profits on the horizon for companies that can solve these and other issues, solar companies are coming up with ever more innovative solutions, including CPV plants with smaller footprints that will allow them to be installed in more convenient locations.
Although there are still some hurdles on the horizon, it seems like only a matter of time until solar power catches up to its fossil fuel rivals and begins to help power the world.