The recent UN report on climate change points out that the world does not have much time to switch to renewables if it is to avoid catastrophes stemming from global warming. Climate change is being driven by human beings burning coal, gas and petroleum, and we need to stop doing that ASAP. The most plausible path to green energy is solar panels, which are rapidly falling in price and rising in efficiency. (A German team recently achieved 44.7% efficiency, more than doubling the typical yield per panel nowadays.) My guess is that no one will bother with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of natural gas in only a few years because solar panels will be much cheaper. Propagandists will try to convince you that solar is not important (because it is only recently growing by leaps and bounds and so is still a small part of the world’s energy mix). But that would be like complaining in April of 2010 that there weren’t many iPad tablets in consumers’ hands compared to laptop computers. The iPad was only introduced at the beginning of that month. Over three years later the world is flooded with them. Solar panels will be far more popular than iPads over time.
The sheer scale of the building out of solar capacity in various parts of the world now is mind-boggling. Here are ten items that give a sense of that scale:
1. Worldwide in 2013, it is expected that 33 gigawatts of wind power will be added But as much as 38 gigawatts of solar could be added, so that solar is beginning to outstrip wind. Since there is far more energy available from the sun than there is wind energy, this surge of solar is good news for renewables. The world uses roughly 15,000 gigawatts of energy, so we need to vastly expand the number and rate of solar installations, but their present growth is eye-popping compared to just a few years ago.
2. The price of solar panels in the US fell by 60% from January 2011 until June of 2013. Some observers suggest that we are seeing a Moore’s law for solar panels, by analogy to the principle in computer processing that data density doubles every 18 months. The efficiency of the panels in labs has begun doubling every 2.5 years, and the cost is likewise falling rapidly.
3. India is building the largest solar farm in the world in the desert of Rajasthan, with a capacity of 4 gigawatts. It will double India’s current solar power generation (though other big solar projects are planned by state governments). It will also sell electricity at a cheaper rate than other solar installations in that country. The enormous solar complex will be four times larger than the 10 biggest such American installations. India is expected to add 2.8 gigawatts of solar power in 2014 alone.
4. Some 70% of solar power in India is now sited in Gujarat state in the country’s northwest. It has almost 1 gigawatt in solar power, filling some 4 percent of its electricity needs, and has big plans for the expansion of solar power.
5. Chile is in a race with India to build the world’s largest solar power plant.
6. The 280 megawatt Solana thermal solar power plant in Arizona can store energy in molten salt for up to six hours, so it will go on generating electricity for 6 hours after sunset.
7. The Japanese space agency, JAXA, is planning to put up stationary satellites to collect sunlight and then beam energy down to collectors via lasers or microwaves. Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster has idled most of its nuclear plants, and though the present government wants to reopen some of them, Japanese public opinion is now suspicious of nuclear power. New technological solution to green energy will likely be a hallmark of Japanese research and development in the coming years, and could well help reinvigorate the Japanese economy.
8. The German firm, the Schmid Group, is planning to build Latin America’s largest solar panel manufacturing facility in Argentina. It will produce 70 megawatts of panels annually.
9. The state of South Australia gets 25% of its electricity from wind and 3.7% from solar. All of Australia gets 13% of its energy from renewable sources, but its wind and solar systems are expanding very fast. One million Australian homes are equipped with rooftop solar. There are only 23 million Australians, and most live in a household with other members, so a million households is huge. It is possible that 50% of Australian homes will have rooftop solar by the end of 2014. By 2030, all of Australia’s electricity needs could be met by renewables.