The Summer That Put Solar Energy In The Shade

We have had a few laughs in the past at the expense of the PV installation industry. Solar panels on the north wall of a multi-story car park (wrong on so many levels) being one such example. And there are plenty of real life cases of inappropriately placed panels. However this year quite a few installers installed panels in an extremely shady place – the UK. According to the Met Office this summer has been the second wettest on record, which has cast a long shadow over the country’s rooftop power station.

What we are seeing, not for the first time, is the sunshine turning up late with a burst of energy in the early autumn. This is of course good for our passive solar energy system but not so helpful for PV panels angled up at the sky on a south-facing roof. While PV panels produce high value energy (electricity rather than heat) perhaps it is worth taking a second look at photovoltaics and asking ourselves a few searching questions about their role in reducing domestic energy bills.

Let us start with some lateral thinking and ask a fundamental question – would the photovoltaic collector market have taken off if silicon was not already being used in the IT industry? If the foundries hadn’t already existed would anyone have built them just to make materials for solar panels? Back in the 1980s companies supplying photovoltaic arrays to communications satellite companies were looking for a new market for what was then a very expensive device. The idea was that if that market grew to a sufficient size production costs would fall.

One such market was large scale solar power plants. I looked at this twice, once during the 1980s and again at the beginning of the current renewable energy bubble. There is a report covering the subject - Farming Renewable Energy - and if you speak to me nicely I will email you a copy.

Twenty-five years ago few people believed photovoltaic devices would become so cheap householders could afford to mount them on their roofs. But this was the beginning of the high technology boom that drove the market for silicon and also distorted the way we perceived that market.

Ten years ago the target price for a PV solar panel was $1 per watt. At this price projects such as the renewable energy farm would become viable – just. Today the price is down to 42 cents per watt. In theory the cost of PV solar panels is so low that they make economic sense - even without a subsidised feed in tariff. Certainly governments now think so and are scaling back support. So with both Europe’s weather and the outlook for renewable energy undergoing something of a change this is a good point at which to take a look at PV solar - and that is what I will be doing in following blog posts.

Peter Kruger

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