Surging solar soups up

This article is excerpted from the July 2015 edition of the Fourth Pig newsletter "Force of Nature" - check out the newsletter and sign up here.

Lets start with the cliché: solar energy is hot. How hot is it? According to the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA) in 2011 solar overtook wind as the most invested in renewable energy in the world.  A recent study of solar growth in the U.S by Buildzoom shows some smoking numbers in the States. As Renewable Energy World reported "Data presented states that from 2005 to 2014, solar installations grew by a factor of 20. During that time, yearly installations went from roughly 10,000 in 2005 to an explosive 230,000 in 2014 alone." Clean Energy Canada’s Merran Smith recently reported that last year "China installed two solar panels every second in 2014, and and a wind turbine every hour." This has helped to bring down costs. CanSIA reported that "In 2013, installations of solar electricity systems in Canada grew by nearly 60% over the previous year" and reported that in Ontario "looking at the cost curve since 2009, capital costs for utility-scale solar will have fallen by 65% between 2009 and 2016."

There are some concerns that supports to solar energy (which are dwarfed by those given to fossil fuels) are under threat. In the UK solar subsidies will be cut even though it will result in under a 50P savings a year in energy bills. In the U.S. a major investment tax credit for solar is set to expire in 2016 but there is a fight to extend it. With an upcoming U.S. presidential election solar will be part of the mix. Hillary Clinton recently pledged to have more than 500,000 solar panels installed in the U.S. within four years

A surge of another kind is technological, solar may be souping up. Currently the vast majority of solar cells use silicon but silicon is not that efficient at absorbing sunshine. Next generation solar cells, according to the Independent, will be based on Cadmium Telluride can be very, very good at absorbing solar energy. However, the efficiency is enhanced  by adding cadmium chloride, which is toxic. Researchers at the University of Liverpool though have just reported that magnesium chloride (sea salt) works just as well.  

As the Independent reported:"In a study published in the journal Nature, the researchers demonstrated that the efficiency of the resulting photovoltaic cells made from cadmium telluride and magnesium chloride were on a par with commercial cadmium telluride cells that had been activated with toxic cadmium chloride." Cadmium chloride is about 1% the cost of cadmium telluride and is non-toxic so disposal is better for the environment and less costly.

Finally, (mind-bender and light-bender alert) researchers at the University of Riverside in California have developed a way to "reshape" the solar spectrum so that the light that hits solar panels better fits with the light that solar panels can process. It seems the infared light is altered before it hits the panels to a spectrum that the panels can convert to energy. Get the official explanation here. In short, this means more energy out of panels. 

And so the cliché closing - when it comes to solar, it is a new dawn.