How does solar change things?

Now, there is a question that opens a pandora’s box of opinion!

While opinions are valid in the renewable energy debate, facts are what we should be working with when it comes to looking at energy production in the future.

Utility Level Solar

One word here – China.

When you have 1.5 billion people to cater for, looking to the future for your energy provision is a pretty good idea – and China is certainly futureproofing.

As of 2022 China were producing over 450 GW of electricity to feed into their grid compared to the US’s 142.3 GW and India’s 64.4 GW.

That said, Japan and Germany are upping the ante too.

In terms of the percentage of solar in comparison to other ways of generating energy, however, the ‘league’ table looks quite different.

The top 5 countries when we look at the data this are as follows:

Australia — 15.5%

Spain — 14.2%

Greece — 13.6%

Honduras — 12.9%

Netherlands — 11.8%

Those numbers are increasing year on year.

How is the UK utilising solar?

To be fair, we are doing ok considering we have neither the space nor the sunshine compared to places like China, India and the US.

Analysis of the energy offer in the UK has highlighted solar energy as the most cost-effective way to hit the UK’s commitment to reach net zero by 2050 – but we will need to triple our current solar provision.

Renewable energy in the UK has long been the poor cousin of the fossil fuel industry, lagging behind in investment, construction and, let’s face it, public interest.

This is slowly changing though and, if it changes enough, solar will become the norm rather than something we ‘add’ to our energy mix.

More solar power, less CO2

So, with solar power becoming a serious contender in the world’s energy mix, what does that mean for the planet and the future.

Obviously, reducing greenhouse gases is a wonderful by-product of renewable energy, and solar is up there with the best.

When you consider coal generated electricity has a carbon footprint of 1,689 grams per kWh over the lifetime of a lump of coal, renewables fare so much better.

Solar – 46g per kWh

Hydro - 24g per kW

Wind - 26g per kW

Tidal - 22g per kW

Biomass - 230g per kW

Most of Solar's carbon footprint comes from the mining of silicon and using Lithium-ion batteries for storage – as we advance the technology, we will see a firm reduction in those numbers.

The UK’s fossil fuel power stations currently generate 527 tons of carbon dioxide per gigawatt hour (GWh) - if that was to be all solar, it would be as little as 46 tons, which is quite the reduction.

Of course, we couldn’t generate all our power from solar in the UK, so the CO2 would actually reduce more with other renewables we add into the mix.

On a worldwide stage we could hit a record high of 36.6bn tonnes of CO2, new estimates suggest, if we keep using fossil fuels at the rate we are.

But, just imagine how much of that we could counter with a full sign up to electric vehicles and renewables!

And then make the change yourself.

The future of Solar

As technology moves on, the cost and emissions from solar will continue to fall, making it a real contender for future energy king.

Not only are the panel mounts becoming more flexible, so they can follow the sun more closely, but the panels themselves are becoming more and more efficient.

There are 2 main types of solar panel use for PV generation.

Polycrystaline panels used to be the ‘norm’ but their efficiency was as little as 15%. Monocrystalline panels are much more popular, especially in the west, and are reaching efficiencies of 24% in domestic set ups.

New ways of increasing efficiency in solar panels is already well under way with the adoption of pyramid lens that concentrate more daylight onto each solar cell and making solar cells from different types of semiconductors to increase the power conversion.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the US has already achieved 39% efficiency and are predicted a rise to 50% but the panels are currently too expensive to produce commercially right now.

While those efficiency numbers are hardly mind-blowing, they allude to the amount of electricity you can produce from your source material. Solar is 20 – 24%, coal is 60%, gas is 49%, wind is 20 and hydro is 90%. Hydro steaming ahead there but, the downside to hydro is that dams flood a lot of natural environments.

This would be a good point to bring China back up. Their space agency has just launched an experiment to use satellites to collect solar power.

The idea is to get solar panels into space and take advantage of the Earth’s orbit to take advantage of 24-hour daylight!

The resulting electricity would be carried to earth using microwaves and collected by specially designed power stations.