Why the world is be­com­ing hot on solar power

Fall­ing panel costs, grow­ing ef­fi­ciency and so­lu­tions to stor­age prob­lems are all help­ing to drive de­mand for solar en­ergy

Shares - - CONTENTS - By Kevin Do­ran, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, AJ Bell In­vest­ments

The date was 27 Au­gust 1956. The UK was in the midst of the Suez Canal cri­sis and ra­tioning petrol. Black and white TVs were about to en­ter mass pro­duc­tion, and folk tun­ing in for the in­au­gu­ral Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test would be dis­ap­pointed, not for the first time, at the Bri­tish entry.

As a sign of the post-war de­cline, the peo­ple of the UK had in­creas­ingly fewer rea­sons to be proud of their lot, but on this day, they could at least point to the na­tion’s pole po­si­tion in the global en­ergy race.

As Calder Hall, sited at the now Sel­lafield plant, plugged it­self into the grid, the nuclear age had be­gun with the UK at its fore­front.

The ini­tial signs were en­cour­ag­ing. Not only was the plant ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing weapons grade ura­nium (its orig­i­nal pur­pose), the 240MWe of power on board promised cheap en­ergy for the masses.

HYPE VER­SUS RE­AL­ITY

As with all new tech­nolo­gies, the early hype was largely overblown. With claims of pro­gress­ing from nuclear fis­sion to nuclear fu­sion abound, it wasn’t too long be­fore the Wind­scale fire of 1957 dulled the shine of the nuclear in­dus­try de­spite claims from physi­cists that free fuel for all could be just around the cor­ner.

Even to­day, those claims per­sist. As nuclear sci­en­tists de­vote bil­lions of dol­lars in an at­tempt to fuse hy­dro­gen to­gether and recre­ate the con­di­tions of the sun, the truth is, fu­sion based power is al­ready upon us and grow­ing rapidly.

Lo­cated roughly 93m miles away and reg­u­lar as clock­work, we have ac­cess to our very own fu­sion re­ac­tor. Pro­vid­ing us with all the en­ergy we need, the sun has the power to gen­er­ate all of the elec­tric­ity we could ever wish for, thanks to our un­der­stand­ing of pho­to­voltaics. Yet solar power isn’t ter­ri­bly ef­fi­cient and the sun doesn’t al­ways shine when you want it to.

Step for­ward sci­ence. Thanks to im­prov­ing tech­nolo­gies, solar pan­els are be­com­ing not only cheaper, but also much more ef­fi­cient. Com­bined with ad­vances in ma­te­rial sci­ence, the prob­lem of elec­tric­ity stor­age is also de­clin­ing. There­fore not only can more sun­light be cap­tured and con­verted, but we can now be­gin to dis­trib­ute and use the en­ergy at a time and place of our choos­ing.

SOLAR PRE­DIC­TIONS

It is still early days. Just 2% of the world’s elec­tric­ity is gen­er­ated via solar power, but the fig­ure is grow­ing rapidly and is pre­dicted by vi­sion­ar­ies such as Elon Musk to reach as much as 27% by 2050. Growth at that pace and in an in­dus­try with that scale points to an ex­cit­ing time for in­vestors ahead.

So how do you play the solar theme? Panel man­u­fac­tur­ers, in­stall­ers, in­vert­ers (to change DC to AC) and ca­bling com­pa­nies will all no doubt have a role to play.

The en­abling tech­nol­ogy that will un­lock not only solar but other forms of car­bon-free power such as wind and tide is that of bat­tery tech­nol­ogy – both large scale to sup­port in­dus­trial size solar ar­rays and small scale to sup­port lo­calised home power pro­duc­tion.

As the mo­tor in­dus­try tran­si­tions away from petrol to elec­tric ve­hi­cles, it is here where some of the real ad­vances in bat­tery tech­nolo­gies are be­ing made. When you change your per­cep­tion of the au­to­mo­bile from that of a mechanical horse to one of a driv­able bat­tery, maybe the auto com­pany val­u­a­tions have a lit­tle more vroom in them yet?

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