In the beginning … there was light. And all this time later, we are finally harnessing light’s energy to power our cities, our buildings, and our everyday devices—mostly because all of the energy sources we’ve used until now emit incalculable amounts of carbon and other dangerous particles into the atmosphere, causing what is now widely understood to be a global climate catastrophe.
While the light was good, it was also expensive. Capturing energy from the sun requires acres and acres of enormous photovoltaic panels. Storage and distribution of that energy requires yet another set of costly infrastructure. And scaling and applying this technology to an off-the-grid cabin in the woods is much different from getting it to power an 80-story high-rise in a large city.
But over the last few decades—and particularly over the last few years, as we’ve reached our climate reckoning in the wake of disasters of near-biblical proportions—the technology and components for making and providing non-fossil-burning power are becoming cheaper, smarter, and more widely available.
The Solar Scale
Experts in the field of clean energy contend that the last 20 years have seen a huge reduction in the cost of manufacturing and installing photovoltaic modules. One of these experts is Frank van Mierlo, CEO of 1366 Technologies Inc., a company based in Bedford, Massachusetts, that is at the forefront of solar technology development and production. In a recent podcast called “The Science of Solar,” Mierlo states that the first solar technology was developed in 1954 by Bell Labs. At that time, a solar panel’s cost per kilowatt-hour was about $10. Today, he says, it’s about 4¢ to 5¢.
According to Mierlo, the material of a solar panel acts as a semiconductor, which processes electricity in a way that wastes a certain percentage of energy. The best a solar panel can do, he says, is to harness 24% of available energy from the sun, and today’s panels are approaching that limit. But new technologies promise a higher energy harvest. His company is developing a tandem module, which has the ability to increase the energy output of a solar panel by 35%. Using two semiconductors, tandem panels can capture energy from both low- and high-wavelength photons. When they become commercially available in the near future, it is expected that tandems will reduce the kilowatt-hour cost of a solar panel to 2¢.