How Efficient Are Solar Electricity Power Systems?

Times have changed.

For several decades, the evolution of solar power has been slow but very worthwhile. I remember my first encounter with solar. My dad bought me my first small pocket calculator in secondary school—JSS 1 to be precise. It had a solar cell strip at the top right corner through which it generated enough power to run the calculator. That was cool!

Today, there are several solar powered appliances, gadgets and buildings all around us. Even the International Space Station, thousands of kilometers away from the earth, is powered by electricity generated by solar panels.

This interesting solar evolution actually started way back in 1839 when Alexandre Becquerel discovered a material that produces electricity when exposed to light. As a result of that singular discovery and subsequent technological breakthroughs many homes, businesses and public facilities throughout the world today enjoy electricity generated from the sun!

Modern applications for solar power technologies are fast becoming limitless as technological research and development continue to break performance records and drive the discovery of more efficient and cost effective methods of tapping the sun’s free energy.

I have been actively involved in the new and renewable energy industry for over seven years and have come to the conclusion that solar power provides one of the key practical solutions to the persistent global energy crisis faced by millions of people both in developed and developing nations. Well more than 500,000 families in Africa, more than a million homes in Europe and millions of families in Asia and America too can testify to this.

One of the most commonly asked questions I am faced with is “how efficient is solar power?” And usually, my answer is the same—“Efficient enough to make a difference in our world today!”

The efficiency of a solar panel is derived by calculating the percentage of sunlight that a panel converts to electricity. Many solar panels today convert about 20 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity—this in itself is a feat. In 1990, the highest efficiency of solar cells was less than 10 percent.

Broadly speaking, solar power technology is a very simple concept. I’ll attempt to explain how it works in three sentences- Solar power is generated when a solar panel is exposed to sunlight. The generated electricity can either be utilized instantly or stored in batteries for use later at night (when there’s no sunlight). Since solar energy is a renewable source of energy, solar power is inexhaustible, environmentally friendly and clean (no air or noise pollution).

Till date, 271 GW (271,000 MW) of solar power has been installed worldwide according to GlobalData Plc. This equates to more than 20 times the current total generation capacity of all Nigeria’s electricity generation plants (including its hydro dams, thermal power stations and commissioned Independent Power Projects (IPPs). Most of the world’s solar installations are roof mounted solutions and ground mounted solar farms which provide decentralized access to power for millions around the world.

With more than 45 percent of Nigeria’s population not connected to the national grid and millions of households and businesses facing persistent black outs of at least 3,000 hours yearly, there’s a real opportunity for Nigeria and Nigerians to tap into solar power as an efficient power solution to reduce the country’s electricity supply deficit.

The good news is that there has been a conspicuous surfacing of an emerging solar market in Nigeria in the last couple of years. This is a positive development—not only because of the obvious benefit of reliable electricity and the thousands of jobs that have been created but also because there has been a subtle paradigm shift from the conventional fossil fuel powered generators to a more sustainable and cleaner alternative power source.

Access to electricity is very crucial in our ever dynamic and increasingly competitive world. It is a prerequisite for meaningful economic growth. Without power, there is no development.

Times have changed. 

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Lanre Okanlawon is the Founder and Executive Director of Greenicles Energy and Trade Limited and a Renewable Energy masters degree holder from Durham University. As an individual, Lanre has a very strong interest in the development of solar power. Recently, he has been covering the prospects of solar energy in Africa. He tweets as @Lanre_Ok

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