Our sun creates energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation by means of nuclear fusion in its core. And over here on earth, we’ve developed solar technologies to capture this radiation and convert it into a useful form of energy for us. Mainly electricity.
Photovoltaic cells or solar cells are the most common and well known ways of capturing the sun’s energy. The most important part of these are the semiconductors, usually made of silicon. Photons hit these semiconductors which knock electrons loose, and this flow of electrons is essentially what generates an electrical current. Metal on the top and bottom of the solar cell then directs the current to its destination, i.e. whatever it is you’re trying to power.
Solar furnaces are another way of collecting solar energy by concentrating solar radiation onto a small area where it will heat up a fluid, like water, to its boiling point and create steam. The steam then turns into a turbine to generate electricity.
An example of this is the solar tower found in California, which is surrounded by mirrors which direct light into a focal point on the tower.
And for all our technological advancements over the last few decades, solar technology is really still in its infancy, with all the limitations that entails.
Your typical solar cell today has an average energy conversion rate of only around 20%, because a lot of the light is either reflected, not absorbed by electrons or the light that hits the electrons doesn’t have enough energy to release them and create an electric current. Another big obstacle is that building large enough batteries to store the excess electricity for when there’s no sun out is that it’s still really expensive.
Despite this however, since the market for renewable energy sources continues to grow, solar technology keeps advancing and the industry keeps making strides.
According to Allied Market Research, the solar industry’s market value is expected to surpass 200 billion dollars by 2026.
In 2020, despite the pandemic, the solar industry grew 43% in the US and according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Wood Mackenzie, a global research and consulting firm focused on global natural resources, expects the operating solar fleet in the US to at least quadruple by 2030. As of 2019, the US solar industry employs more than 200,000 people.
And to help out with innovation and development, governments around the world are incentivizing the advancement of solar technologies. Here in the US, at the federal level there are numerous programs. The most basic of which are solar tax credits. What this means is that people who install a solar system on their home are eligible to receive a tax deduction.
As of June 2021, these tax credits are said to be available for systems installed up until December 2021.
Furthermore, the US Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) supports early stage research and development of solar technology projects. It does this through a competitive process and those who get approved may receive financial and/or technical assistance. Since 2008 they’ve given hundreds of millions through their funding programs.
Here in California, the state is looking to get its energy completely from renewables by 2045, and solar will play a large role in that…so the state has its own incentives. Programs like Sash and Mash, among others, help low income residents transition to solar. And the net metering incentive requires utility companies to buy homeowners’ excess solar energy. California residents can also get a rebate when installing solar battery systems.
In Los Angeles specifically there’s: LA’s Green New Deal Plan, an ambitious plan for zero waste, zero carbon, zero wasted water, and other goals by 2050. It also includes plans to create hundreds of thousands of green jobs. Among all of this of course is an increase in solar energy production and storage, which will probably play a big role in LA’s energy grid.
The Renewable Energy Ordinance (REO) of Los Angeles, updates the planning and zoning code for the review and permitting of solar and wind energy projects, basically streamlining the permit process and incentivizing small-scale solar and wind projects.
Los Angeles is also doing something called Shared Solar, allowing residents living in multifamily dwellings like apartments or condos to have a portion of their electricity supplied from solar power. This is something that not only will help families out with their utility bills but also help create local jobs within the renewable energy industry.
According to Bloomberg, solar has jumped from being 11% of California’s energy generation to over 25% in 20 years. The SEIA (Solar Energy Industries Association) reports that major U.S. companies, like Apple, Amazon, Google, Walmart, and Target, are investing heavily in solar, installing thousands of MW worth of solar systems across their facilities. With this, and keeping in mind California’s plans to go 100% renewable as soon as possible, solar’s all but guaranteed to keep growing.
LA based Solar energy company 8minute is currently working on a project called Eland, which will be the largest solar and storage project in the US, and will be located 70 miles from LA near Kern County. Project Eland was acquired by investment company Capital Dynamics, but 8minute will continue working on and developing the project to its completion.
So what’s next for solar?
Well being able to deploy solar farms in orbit is something a number of countries and space agencies are looking into. The big problem of course is transferring collected energy from orbit to the earth’s surface. We’re likely still decades away from accomplishing something like this but it’s still a very interesting possibility with a lot of potential.
Solar walls are being used nowadays, but they’re not what you think. They’re a technology used to passively heat up your home. Now this is cool, and super useful, but more interesting than solar walls are solar windows, which is something that will hopefully be a thing soon, thanks to quantum dot solar cells that could have a maximum efficiency of about 66 percent … which is a huge step up from the 30-40% theoretical maximum of your average solar cell.
A company with the on the nose name: SolarWindow, seems to have developed a coating, which could turn, not only windows, but other surfaces into an electricity producing system.
So there’s definitely a lot of development and innovation going on in this field, especially with all the market and government incentives out there! The future of the industry is definitely bright, and there’s lots of room for companies and startups to make strides in current technologies or completely change the game with new innovations.