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Unleashing solar energy

By Mathieu VILLARD
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Fire up the barbecues, roll out the towels and get those sandcastles built: it’s summertime, and the living is easy. If you forgot the 50+ and are suffering sunburn in lobster hues, you’ll be able to attest to the almighty power of the sun’s rays.

After being fried in person, the power of solar probably hits a little closer to home – but are we harnessing its full potential?

Solar energy is by far the largest energy resource on earth. 174 petawatts (PW) of energy in form of solar radiation hits our atmosphere. What’s a petawatt? Think of the capacity of the U.S. electrical grid: a petawatt is that x 1,000. In one hour, the amount of power from the sun hitting our planet is more than what the entire world consumes in a year.

There are two main types: solar thermal and photovoltaic. Solar thermal heats up a liquid using the sun’s energy, while photovoltaic uses solar panels made of semiconductor materials to convert sunlight into electricity.

The potential for clean, carbon-free electricity generation has the ability to effortlessly oversupply current electricity demand in most countries.

In addition to a theoretically immense amount of energy, solar energy has many other assets that will only strengthen its growth in the years to come. Here are the main reasons:

It's a more sustainable energy supply. Climate change is forcing governments to phase out fossil fuels in favour of clean energy alternatives. The growth of renewable energy sources needs to at least double for the world to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to below 2°C.

It’s an immediately available energy, providing autonomy and independence. Sunlight isn’t exclusively hitting some people and not others: everyone has the ability to produce electricity from solar energy. Moving away from fossil fuels also increases independence, which should also be a major drawcard.

It keeps the energy bill down. Switching to solar energy reduces the exposure to the volatility of fossil fuel prices. According to the BloombergNEF Solar Outlook, between 2010 and 2020, solar photovoltaic module prices plummeted by almost 90%.

There’s still a lot of work to be done in the solar space, and R&D efforts are moving at a fast clip to tackle identified challenges including:

Storage. The energy produced by solar systems when the sun is shining needs to be stored for use after dark. In fact, according to scientists at a Swedish university, solar energy can be stored for up to 18 years with the right technology. Creating more efficient batteries is key, and there’s promising news surrounding price points too. According to BloombergNEF Solar Outlook, the price of batteries has dropped by 84% since 2010.

Integration. The ground-mounted panels stretched across vast areas come to mind when we think of solar power, but these aren’t the only way to harvest this renewable. Photovoltaic roof tiles, glass, walls and road panels exist and more technologies are being developed. Electric vehicle bodywork might be next…

Environmental impact. The reality is that photovoltaic systems contain hazardous materials, and chemicals are needed to produce photovoltaic cells. Ways of recycling these materials and cells is essential, and more efficient panels need to be developed. Encouragingly, the research and experimentation is underway.

The future of solar is bright, and full of promise for the planet and your portfolio.