Is photovoltaic technology worth the trouble?

Given the 2012 ITC ruling against China for its massive government support of its photovoltaic manufacturers, no clear consensus has emerged as to the effect this will have on our solar industry at large. However, it’s certain the continuing drama will tittilate policy hacks for a long time to come while distracting us from our overall energy strategy.

Let’s take stock of where we are now with photovoltaic technology. With smart-phone elegance and as a plug-in replacement for coal, photovoltaic panels have game in the popular mindset. In the United States, solar energy equates with photovoltaic technology despite other parts of the world having quietly embraced solar thermal solutions and energy conservation as more cost-effective. What’s up with this?

Photovoltaic efficiency is limited by physics to around 25% for single-junction materials (everything on the consumer market) and 50% for multi-junction materials (concentrating photovoltaics) with a reduction of approximately 1/3 of the efficiency after adding AC converters and wiring. Currently, 13% system efficiency is considered acceptable in consumer systems. That 13% is when the sun is facing the solar panels directly on a clear day, so in real world terms, solar yield is in the low single digit range. These incidentals are usually lost in policy discussions.  

In earlier days, energy policy was a grass-roots movement. Self-sufficiency geeks cobbled their own solutions and had fun doing it while lowering the energy bill. A ton of literature was produced in the ’70s and ’80s detailing these home-brewed energy strategies, many of which work and make perfect sense. Very few of these solutions resulted in consumer products, however, which limited their mainstream acceptance. This situation could change if we again focused our resources on frugal innovation.

Since Bell Labs invented the photovoltaic chip in the 1960s, can you think of a single renewable energy solution from Big Science that has gone mainstream? While we are waiting to be saved by monolithic plug-in solutions to our energy needs, we could embark on a national campaign to reduce energy consumption and encourage innovation at the grass-roots level.

So, we’ll continue following the fate of our beloved solar photovoltaics, but that shouldn’t stop us from reshaping our overall energy future.





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