“More energy from sunlight strikes the Earth in one hour than all the energy consumed in the planet in one year.” Hearing a speaker from the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science say this at a Materials Science & Technology (MS&T) conference a number of years ago sparked my interest in renewable energy, particularly solar energy. It inspired me to leave the aluminum industry and join a company that produced silicon photovoltaic solar cells.
I was intrigued by the fact that the sun is virtually an unlimited source of energy. This presents significant opportunities for scientists and engineers to develop cutting-edge solar powered technologies to efficiently capture energy from the sun. The past several years have seen significant advancements in solar technology, and future improvements will create jobs, meet the growing need for electrical energy, and enable the United States to achieve its carbon-cutting goals.
While working in the solar cell industry, I gave a number of presentations on solar energy at symposiums that were attended by material scientists. In my presentations, I promoted the message of renewable energy as a means to “power the future” by utilizing sustainable energy sources. For example, at the MS&T meeting in 2009, I summarized several energy challenges and discussed the significant role that material scientists and engineers can play in addressing the world’s energy needs by providing materials-based solutions to:
- Reduce the environmental impact of greenhouse gases and waste generated from current electric power sources.
- Increase the growth rate of renewable energy sources: wind, biomass, geothermal, thermal solar and photovoltaic.
- Aggressively expand efforts to conserve energy and recycle
When discussing the relationship of renewable energy and our current energy sources, a key factor is the expected growth in the world’s need for energy. According to a 2005 DOE report, world demand for energy was projected to more than double from 13 terawatts/year to 30 terawatts/year by 2050. Furthermore the demand for energy could increase by three times by the end of the century.
The demand for energy is in part driven by population growth. For instance, the population of the world is projected to increase by 29 percent from 7.3 billion in 2015 to 9.4 billion people by 2050. The world therefore will need more energy from both traditional and renewable sources. Meeting the world’s energy needs will require dedicated efforts by everyone to conserve and support energy generation in a sustainable manner.
I believe an important means of providing electric power for future generations is solar photovoltaic. Scientists and engineers in companies, laboratories, and universities around the world are making significant advances in improving the efficiency and reducing the cost of producing electricity from solar photovoltaic technologies. My colleagues Chris Averill and Jared Kosters also discussed these advancements in previous blog posts.
The U.S. Department of Energy launched the SunShot Initiative in early 2011 to accelerate the development of solar electricity. The goal of the initiative is to reduce the total installed cost of solar energy to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour by 2020. Achieving this goal will make the cost of solar energy competitive with currently operating energy sources and pave the way for large-scale expansion of solar electricity across the United States. In May of 2014, Minh Le, the Director of the Solar Energy Technologies Office’s SunShot Initiative, summarized the significant progress that has been achieved in just three years in the 2014 Portfolio report:
- The amount of solar power installed at the end of 2013 has increased by 11 times to 13 gigawatts.
- The solar industry is one of the fastest growing industries during the past five years, employment has increased 10 times faster than the rate of the national economy and has generated 143,000 jobs.
- In the past three years, the cost of solar energy has decreased by 60 percent compared to the SunShot Goal.
- SunShot awardees have broken more than a dozen world record solar cell efficiencies during the past few years.
More progress on reducing the cost and amount of electricity generated by solar photovoltaic approaches needs to be achieved. The growing development and use of solar power will mean a brighter future for all of us as noted by the inventor Thomas Edison: “I would put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”