For the past several years, energy providers, consumers, engineers and environmentalists have begun to shift their focus toward renewables like solar, wind, hydroelectric and nuclear power. Many expected these changes to be difficult — but has solar power been more successful than anticipated?
Solar energy’s rapid growth and ever-increasing efficiency suggest this renewable resource is stronger than anyone could’ve predicted. Learn more about solar energy’s accomplishments and future potential.
A Quick History of Solar Power
Humans have been using the sun’s power for thousands of years, from using glass to reflect sunlight and start fires to building sunrooms that concentrate the sun’s heat in one part of a home. However, the solar energy of today is relatively new. Bell Labs created the first silicon photovoltaic (PV) solar panel in 1954.
Over the next few decades, engineers continued experimenting with solar panels, making them more efficient. As the 21st century began, the solar market was still small, and panels were expensive to install and maintain. However, the solar power boom over the last decade has led to the present moment.
Solar Power’s Rapid Growth
While many people had high hopes for the future of solar energy, few predicted how rapid its growth would be. For example, a 2017 report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change optimistically predicted that solar energy would produce at least 1,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) of global electricity by 2030. In fact, solar generated over 1,000 TWh of power in 2021 — over a decade ahead of the UN’s ambitious prediction.
While solar still only contributes a small percentage of global energy production, its fast growth is unprecedented. Over half of all new generation additions are solar PV, with solar and wind power equipment installed three times faster than every other form.
It’s a global phenomenon — countries worldwide are developing their solar capabilities, including the U.S., China, Vietnam, Germany and the Netherlands. In recent years, Australia has set numerous records regarding solar power production. The country is targeting 82% renewability by 2030 and full decarbonization by the middle of the century.
Why Is Solar Energy so Powerful?
Several factors have contributed to solar power’s swift rise. One of the most important is that costs have fallen while efficiency has improved. Global infrastructure can better support production and use as more individuals and companies convert to solar. Since this tech is no longer a rarity, material costs for PV panels have decreased — making it more affordable and accessible for everyone.
Additionally, solar power technology is getting more advanced and efficient. The first PV solar panel had just 4% efficiency, while most of today’s commercial solar panels provide closer to 20% efficiency. The technology isn’t finished growing — researchers are developing panels that have delivered nearly 50% efficiency. Geotechnical engineering helps support solar infrastructure, improving stability and reducing the risk of power failures.
Solar panels also have a positive environmental impact. They’re a more sustainable alternative to fossil fuels and can be installed almost anywhere, from rooftops to arid land to agricultural spaces to floating atop water. Many countries and private companies are interested in reducing their carbon footprint, and solar energy is helping lead the clean generation movement.
Solar Energy’s Unprecedented Power
Greater access, efficiency and sustainability are the primary factors driving solar power’s popularity in recent years. Increased adoption of this power source is on track to continue as efficiency improves and costs come down. Advocates of this renewable energy face challenges, such as further integrating this resource with homes, businesses and existing power infrastructure. However, the future is bright when it comes to power from the sun.
See more posts from Jane Marsh at environment.co
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