There was a time when burning coal in homes and factories seemed the most regular thing in the world. The idea that we should one day transition to natural gas seemed unthinkable when the steel coal furnace – an early radiator model – was invented in 1895.
Yet change is the only constant. Fast forward a little more than a century and natural gas is the primary domestic heat source in every U.S. region except the South – and the early signs of further change are beginning to show, as electricity charts an upward trend.
Will solar power be the next big player in the energy market? Here are the reasons why it may – or may not – change the industry forever.
Solar could bring control and savings
In recent years, solar technology has improved to mean more affordable price-points for consumers. Panels are more efficient than ever before – in fact, the efficiency of the crystal silicon panel continues to improve by 0.5 per cent each year. Further innovations, including the use of half cut cells, have proved simple but effective, enhancing each unit’s performance and durability.
All these changes ultimately make solar panels more attractive to the consumer, since the cheaper panels are to buy relative to the amount of fuel they give out, the more convincing the ‘self-sustaining’ benefits seem.
To the American public, generating solar power at home could come to be viewed as a badge of freedom once the technology advances to make this economically viable.
Panel-fitting still faces hurdles
Despite the ever-expanding technological potential, when it comes to actually fitting panels and cells, householders find progress to be slow-moving and fraught with red tape. It takes one to three days to install solar panels at a residential property – that’s after the solar company has filed for a permit with the local government, which can take more than a month or more.
Afterward, consumers often need to wait several weeks for their installer to file for interconnection with their utility provider. In a world where the pace of life is picking up, this snail’s pace process means widespread home solar panel ownership may be decades away.
Major oil companies are investing in solar
Getting solar panels set up at home may take a frustrating number of weeks, but it’s now possible to switch energy supplier in as little as five minutes – so perhaps the solar transformation will happen at a utility scale (and meet consumer demand).
It’s easy to see why the prospect would be so attractive to major suppliers. Though the technology comes at a cost, the sun’s rays are free – and enough solar energy reaches earth each second to meet all the world’s energy needs 10,000 times over, according to scientist Washington Taylor.
What’s more, all the signs show the major energy providers are preparing for change. BP invested $200m in 2017 on a 43 per cent stake in Europe’s largest solar power project development firm. Shell bought a 44 per cent stake in US solar company Silicon Ranch in 2018. Chevron launched a Future Energy Fund in 2018, which focuses its attention partly on solar. Even Exxon Mobil signed a 12-year renewable energy agreement in 2018, which will see the oil giant using solar farms to boost its operations in Texas.
All this is just the earthly side of the planning, since China has plans to launch a solar farm in space. This move could set off a scramble for the best spots in orbit – if the cost of producing energy in such a way can be reduced.
Solar storage remains costly
Despite the optimism among oil companies, there are still major drawbacks to solar energy. The first is the cost of storing the sun’s energy, which often makes large-scale solar farms inefficient. If solar power is not used right away, it must be stored in large cells, which are expensive to run. This is a major reason why solar farms haven’t yet become the mainstream energy source.
Solar power is also weather dependent, so until space station panels rule the skies, a solar-powered Alaskan winter may be decades off.
These aren’t total barriers to increased adoption – but should serve as a check on anyone getting carried away about the immediate prospects of a solar revolution.