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0 Aug 4 2011 @ 10:59am by Matt Smith in Global Energy

Topic #162 that I find fascinating but need to know more about: Solar Power

So this latest installment of ‘things I find fascinating…’ (with previous topics including #137 Jatropha and #153 Algae) has been inspired by a number of recent catalysts (from our parent company Schneider Electric opening the first dual voltage solar farm in the US last week in Tennessee, to a most amazing documentary called YERT, to @lattmee goading me into buying a photovoltaic t-shirt). Anyhow, I digress. Here’s some insight into my recent findings, along with some solarific facts. 

First up, there are two key ways of converting sunlight into energy; through photovoltaic (= PV) cells, or through solar thermal energy. The difference? PV = creates electricity; thermal = creates heat:

  1. PV cells are semiconductors (such as silicon and thin film) on a solar panel which directly create electricity
  2. Solar thermal energy is a flat-plate which absorbs sunlight to heat water or air flowing in the plate, which then flows to heat water tanks, swimming pools, space heaters, or to power turbines

    Parabolic trough

Although solar thermal energy is used on a smaller scale, power plants also exist (there are 13 currently in the US), through the application of three key methods: parabolic troughs (most common), solar dishes, or solar power towers.

Solar power is generally classified as being either passive or active; PV / thermal are considered active as they harness the energy, while passive solar power is achieved through optimizing air circulation in a building, or through the placement of a building in relation to the sun.  

There is currently over 40 GW of installed solar capacity globally, with Germany being a leading proponent of renewable energy in the last decade, with 17 GW of current solar capacity. Interestingly, Germany, Japan and the US make up 89% of global PV installed capacity. Although the US only had 2.6 GW of solar capacity in 2010, a number of projects underway mean it is set to surpass Germany’s capacity in the coming years. 

So that’s some tidbits to provide some background on solar power. Here are some other solarific facts which I hope will further enlighten you:

1. The Blythe solar power project underway in California’s Mojave desert is set to be the world’s largest solar plant when completed in 2013, doubling the current solar power capacity of the US     
2. Power generation from solar resources is to increase from 2% of nonhydroelectric renewable generation in 2009 to more than 5% in 2035:

3. People tend to place solar panels on their house where they can be seen, rather than for optimum sunlight 
4. With a government review of tariffs in Britain starting this month, solar capacity in the UK rose by more than 50% in Q2 of this year, as developers scrambled to finish projects. The UK’s biggest solar field has just been built in 6 weeks
5. Solar is apparently simple. After all, a student in Michigan has built their own solar farm
6. Technological advancement in solar is being made all the time, with MIT now printing solar cells on paper
7. According to the SEIA, PV installation doubled in 2010 to 878 MW:

8. Solar energy is also being pitched like Groupon
9. South Africa is looking to meet 10% of its energy needs by building one of the world’s largest solar power plants (competing with aforementioned Blythe)
10. It should come as no surprise that China is the largest producer of solar panels, with five of the biggest solar panel manufacturers being Chinese. They have also just announced a nationwide feed-in tariff for solar projects.

Bonus Facts! In the US there is currently a 30% tax credit in place for solar installations through 2016. The EIA projects solar PV capacity will be 8.9 GW in 2035 if the credit expires in 2016, but projects it will reach 47.8 GW if it remains in place. According to other sources, the US may have as much as 75 GW of solar capacity by 2020

That brings this whirlwind through solar power to a close, I hope you found it as interesting as I did to dig into. Til next time, laters ‘taters.

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