Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Solar’s future is not blue

Posted by butalidnl on 2 July 2009

Solar energy is approaching “grid parity”, which is the point where the cost of solar energy will be equal or less than the cost of electricity from the grid.  We could expect it to happen, at least for the sunnier areas, in about 3 to 5 years. But this does not mean that, all of a sudden, every house will have blue solar panels on their roofs.  It will most probably happen quite “invisibly”, in that it won’t be that obvious. What will solar electricity post “grid parity” look like?

Deserts first
The first places which will generate solar electricity will naturally be in open spaces with lots of sun. Deserts are ideal, since it has lots of sun, and is usually not used for much else.  Grid parity will arrive first for these areas, since it would produce much more electricity (and thus making it relative cheap) than in urban areas, for example.

While many areas that use electricity may be far away from deserts, there are enough places where the desert is near population centers.  In Egypt, for example, the desert is literally next to the cities. This is also the case in more places in the middle east.  Some countries are already starting to set up solar facilities: the UAE’s Masdar city project is one example (it is a city designed to run on solar and wind energy).

While Arabian countries export oil, which (theoretically) competes with solar energy; they are also conscious that the oil will not last forever – they will go solar to prepare for the post-oil future. Also, it is also a big waste of the desert if they don’t do this.

Industrial and Commercial Roofs Next
The cost for solar energy go down as the area covered gets bigger. Thus, bigger buildings will be cost-effective for solar energy earlier than for houses.  In the US, the price of electricity from the grid averages 9 cents per KwH, and solar PV averages about 21 cents/KwH for commercial and industrial roofs.  With the coming of the new generation of PV Laminates,which are less efficient than the present “blue” panels but much cheaper, the price of solar electricity will be about 10cents/KwH.  With constant improvement of technology, and lowering of costs,   the price of solar electricity will be equal or even less than grid electricity in a couple of years, for bigger buildings.
For houses, however, it will probably be 5 years or more before grid parity will be achieved, even using PV laminates. (Another thing about PV laminates, is that it will be marketed mainly to the large-scale market, at least in the first few years)

Not “blue”
Solar energy technological developments make it more likely that the face of solar energy will not be the familiar blue solar panels. As mentioned above, PV laminates will be used more often for buildings (these would be either brown or gray). Then there are other technologies that would likely be used for generating electricity in open spaces. Concentrating solar towers use a whole field of mirrors to concentrate sunlight which is used to heat a liquid which runs a turbine. The project in Sevilla, Spain uses this technology.
Another technique is the solar-thermal tower.  With this, a big area is covered with a transparent plastic, and there is a horizontal tube in the middle. The sun heats the ground under the plastic, causing the air to rise out the tower. The rising air, as well as the air rushing to replace it, could then be used to run fans which generate electricity. This technique is less efficient in terms of electricity per area of ground used. However, it is relatively cheap to build; and if the ground price is cheap, the area that will be used will not be an issue.

Building materials
Various techniques are also being developed to integrate solar cells with building materials. The PV laminates could be made integral in the roofing material. Thus, the PV capacity comes together with the roof; rather than the present practice of placing the “blue” solar panels on the roof. This would make the whole operation cheaper.

Then there are various “printed PV” technologies which could integrate PV capacity on glass and walls of buildings.

All in all, PV grid parity will mean that solar electricity will be generated in relatively “invisible” ways or out-of-the-way places. In comparison, the present system of blue panels on roofs will look like hobbyist’s projects.

See also: Solar energy links

2 Responses to “Solar’s future is not blue”

  1. bjorn said

    Sir,
    Hello! Im Bjorn from Baguio City, Philippines. Im very interested in solar power and ive been searching the web on how I can acquire knowledge/training on how to install solar panels here in the Philippines … and so far found none. Do you know of such institution that offers training?
    My uncle who is based in the U.S was told by a friend that solar panels are not recommended here in the Philippines because its not that productive (according to a research done by some groups) and that they recommend wind turbine instead. Is this true, sir?
    Im very interested in using solar panels and introducing it here in our community but being here in the Philippines, Im having a hard time acquiring the knowledge/training needed to use one. I’m very disturbed by the damages we our causing our environment. If you can help me out with informations, sir, its greatly appreciated. thank you =)!

  2. Hi from new zealand, good blog. I will come back next week to see what’s new.

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