Implementing solar (photovoltaic) power (pv) on the large scale is not practicable using conventional solar-cells, or grounds of cost and availability of materials. The main problem is the relatively large quantities of high-grade silicon that would be required, and the only real salvation for this very attractive technology is via thin-film cells, which use perhaps 1/100 th of the amount of semiconducting material that conventional pv does. There has been a significant advance which potentially brings pv into the wider marketplace, and that is due to a Silicon Valley start-up company, called Nanosolar, a name which provides a clue as to their methodology.
Nanosolar have made the advance of printing pv directly onto aluminium foil, rather like the way newspapers are printed, and the company announced that its order books are full from European consumers, and it seems likely that a second factory will open in Germany which is the main buyer for solar power, outstripping conventional provision of pv. Erik Oldekop, who is Nanosolar's representative in Switzerland, said, "We aim to produce the panels for 99 cents (50 p) a Watt, which is comparable to the price of electricity generated from coal. We cannot disclose our exact figures yet as we are a private company but we can bring it down to that level. That is the vision we are aiming at."
The panels that Nanosolar are producing are intended principally for use in large-scale power plants rather that to be installed on the roof at home. The stated aim is to make power stations up to 10 MW in generating capacity, according to Oldekop, but let's face it that is just 1% of the output of a typical coal, gas or nuclear fuelled power station. On the other hand, these solar-power stations could be running from scratch within 9 months as opposed to 10 years or so for coal and 15 years for nuclear power stations. The latter figures make depressing reading when the UK government is prevaricating over whether to install new nuclear or not, and I think that a date of 2023 (i.e. 15 years from now) will just about bring in new nuclear to replace the present by then obsolete generation of nuclear reactors. If we need to expand the nuclear provision significantly on these shores, a huge nuclear construction programme must be begun immediately. I wonder how supplies of gas and coal will hold-up until sufficient nuclear power is installed, or if they will.
If Nanosolar can be installed on a massive scale, that might buy us time and even comprise a significant proportion of the final energy-mix, but can it be done in terms both of resources and engineering? Currently, solar power costs three times as much as electricity made from fossil fuels, but those costs look to rise inexorably, making solar increasingly attractive from an economist's perspective. Jeremy Leggett, CEO of Solar Century, commented that it would be "breathtaking" if the technology proves as effective as the company projects. He said, "This is a revolution. But people are going to be amazed at other developments taking place in solar technologies. We will be thrilled if this technology is as efficient as the company says. It will not change the direction of solar power itself. Spectacular improvements are also being made in other parts of the industry." I don't doubt it, but the limits are resources and installable engineering, and how quickly the latter can be implemented, as is true of all other putative kinds of technology it is tempting to wax lyrical over.
We will hit a fossil resource crunch within 10 - 15 years, and so any alternatives need to be up and running ASAP. Once we begin to run short of energy supplies to maintain existing demand, e.g. for electricity, it is debatable how much there will be left-over to power the implementation of new technologies. If the world had begun this path in earnest 30 years ago, when OPEC artificially hiked-up the price of oil by reducing production by a mere 5% (which caused a 400% rise in oil prices), we would in all probability have alternatives we could switch over to now, and save precious hydrocarbon resources for more useful purposes (i.e. manufacturing processes) rather than wastefully burning them.
The only retrospective solution is to cut our energy use, to leave enough over for these other strategies, but we won't make any such savings except by default or through rising costs of energy. However I try to derive a prognosis, an eventual gearing-down in our energy demand seems inevitable, but that will necessitate most of us adopting quite different lifestyles, which many will perceive as unpalatable.
"Solar energy "revolution" brings green power closer," By John Vidal, Environment Editor, The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/dec/29/solarpower.renewableenergy