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  • Melissa Deaver

The Future of Solar Energy

We have seen rapid growth in recent years in the solar industry. Improvements in technology, price and performance plus the development of creative business models has led to an explosion in installations. Further advances are needed in order to create the dramatic increase needed to mitigate climate change.

There are three main areas that will need to be addressed if we are to utilize solar on a massive scale in the US moving forward.

  1. Reducing the cost of solar systems

  2. Ensuring we have the technology to support the rapid expansion at large scale

  3. Integrating solar systems into existing systems

In order to accomplish our offset goals as a nation, solar is the front-runner for sustainable energy. To implement this across the nation, however, will take a reduction in cost of production. Today's photovoltaic systems are primarily wafer-based crystalline silicon (c-Si). This type has been around for a while and is therefore mature enough to hold its own. As manufacturing for c-Si has been established, moving to a large-scale production wouldn't be a problem. These systems are likely to continue to dominate the market for the next several decades.

There are, however, limitations to the c-Si models. They are highly complex and they absorb little light. The cost is increased because of how these are made. This has led to research into thin-film PV alternatives. Many of these alternatives are scarce in nature and therefore wouldn't be able to meet the demand of a large-scale implementation. While these alternative technologies can't compete with the cost of c-Si modules now, there's a good chance that with further research, we will be able to find the right thin-film technology to suit our needs.

Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) systems could be another solution to our cost issues. CSP refers to solar thermal power, designed to store thermal energy. A CSP is a large-scale installation, usually generating 100 megawatts or more. These are a great solution to large-scale requirements. These have been implemented, but could use more research and development to capitalize on their potential.

More research is needed in the area of integration of PV systems into existing electrical systems. As is, with distributed solar from a local utility, pricing can be unfair at times and has come under scrutiny of many utility customers. This is a relatively new area for the utilities, so they are still figuring out the best way to integrate systems. For now, when PV accounts for a significant share of the generation, costs are raised for local customers. This is because new investments are needed to maintain the power quality when it flows from customers back into the network. The systems simply haven't been updated to accommodate this kind of power. The ideal goal in the future with distributed power is to make it efficient and equitable for all consumers. Each customer should only pay their share of costs that reflect their usage.

Overall, while solar energy has been around for a while in concept, the execution of this type of alternative power is relatively new to us. Much more research is needed into more efficient ways to produce and distribute solar, especially should we want to implement this on a wide-scale. Solar, for now, is the best renewable energy available, but we will face some challenges as we learn more about the technology and how to mass-produce and distribute to our citizens.

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