The world has three basic ways of creating useable electricity. It can be induced through electromagnetic generation that is powered by hydro dams, fossil fuels, wind turbines, or steam from the heat of nuclear fission. It can be chemically extracted from batteries containing electolytes and metal plates. Or it can be converted from light energy using semiconductors that have photovoltaic properties. Eighty percent of the world’s electrical energy is currently derived from steam turbines powered by some form of heat energy. This is perhaps the least efficient way to create electricity as it involves a two step conversion process. Still we cling to older technology because it is cheaper to run an old car into the ground than to buy a new one.
Historically speaking, the use of electricity to power the world is a relatively new phenomenon. It is therefore understandable that mankind continues to fumble around at finding the most effective means to generate and use electricity. Within the hundred and eighty years since Michael Faraday gave us the first electromagnetic generator, we have seen the planet transformed by electricity’s countless and extraordinarily diverse applications. At the same time we have locked ourselves into a perception that electricity can only be delivered effectively by means of monstrous power generating plants and a high voltage grid of wires crisscrossing our continents. Although this may continue to be the case for a while, perhaps it is time to rethink our paradigm. Whenever we experience a major black-out, many undoubtedly start to wonder if there is not a better way.
We now live in a century where satellites and remote desert homes are powered by our largest source of direct energy – the sun. If we stop to think about it, converting the sun’s energy to electricity is simply the most efficient and economical long term solution to our electrical needs. For as long as there is a sun shining, we will have a source of free and clean energy. What’s more, the silicon used in the formation of most photovoltaic cells, is among the most plenteous and atomically stable of elements. So, even though we will need supplemental forms of energy during those dark winter days, why can’t the sun become our primary source of electrical power?
What then keeps us from taking a leap into the future? Fear of change and the uncertainties associated with it are perhaps our worst enemies. The recent collapse of Solyndra, an American solar panel manufacturer, is just one example of what can go wrong when capital ventures into the unknown. Some politicians blame China’s unfair trade practice of flooding the American market with cheaper panels that are produced with the aid of government subsidies. But that’s half the truth. The other half involves manufacturing a complex product that could not compete with simpler flat panels from China. Because the federal government provided Solyndra with over five hundred million dollars in loan guarantees, many think it may be a while before some politicians and investors want to revisit the solar solution to America’s energy needs.
But there’s more to the story. In fact the major reason why photovoltaic solar panels have not taken off in North America is that they have not been integrated into the building design and construction industries. Even though the concept of BIPV (building integrated photovoltaics) has been around for a few years, it usually takes a while for designers and constructors to become comfortable in dealing with new products. This is not the case in China where the federal government stepped in to ensure that new architecture incorporates solar energy conversion panels of one form or another. Given that this is occurring in China, we can also be reasonably certain that pragmatic reasons guided the decision making process, and not simply the desire to go green.
What needs to happen is that real estate developers, building designers, and the construction industry begin to see the immediate benefits of applying photovoltaic technology to their buildings. This may involve some new marketing approaches. The solar panel industry needs to convince governments and the public of the overriding benefits of self-sufficient and self-sustaining buildings when compared to the overall costs of constructing and maintaining traditional forms of power generation facilities and power lines. Public perception is important because we know that once the public is on board, industry tends to follow.
As well, solar panel producers need to get more creative. In 2005 a high rise building in Manchester England started to feed the city’s power grid from a vertical photovoltaic panel system incorporated into the curtain wall of the building. This needs to be replicated everywhere. It is a wonder that it is not being done in cities across North America, given the ever increasing cost of fossil fuels. Perhaps the ingredient missing is the cross-pollination of the glass manufacturers and curtain wall installers with the solar panel producers. Once this happens, we are likely to experience a revolution in the energy industry the likes of which we have not seen since Faraday. This happened with computers and digital photography. There’s no reason to doubt it will happen with photovoltaics. We already see it in our calculators and lawn lights. Soon we’ll see it in our office lighting and air conditioning.