Why is solar power interesting? There have been some changes lately and it’s obvious just looking at the last several years. Since 2006, coal and oil prices have risen by 30%. At the same time, price of photovoltaic (PV) technology dropped by 60%. While that kind of cost reduction of PV technology won’t be possible perpetually, neither will fossil fuel industries be able to keep cost from rising much sharper, simply because their ability to provide fuel at volume will dwindle as reserves diminish and get harder to reach, while hunger for energy insatiably grows.
Germany is an important part of this post because at midday on May 25th 2012, Germany – a developed country of over 80 million people – set a national and world record by producing 40% of its electric energy from its solar power plants. Now, these 40% might give the wrong impression, so it might be appropriate to point out that this was peak production in optimal circumstances: on average, Germany gets about 3% of its energy from solar plants during the course of a year. This, in turn, might also give the wrong impression, but of the opposite kind: compared to e.g. the shared Slovenian-Croatian nuclear power plant Krško, German solar plants produce 3 times more energy.
This was the result of creating, putting into motion and sticking to a government incentive plan, a plan that, for a time, basically guarantees the price of electricity produced from solar energy. How far can solar power take us? The German plan is to increase capacity by about 10% of today’s capacity per year until it reaches 25% of all produced electric energy by 2050.
It is interesting to consider this globally, as well. A PV field of roughly 2000×2000 km in the Sahara would produce enough energy for almost 9 billion Germans, at today’s energy use. By that, I mean *all* energy, not just what we use as electricity (~15%), and it assumes average use equal to that in Britain: that is 2x more per capita than currently in Croatia, 4x more than in Brazil or China, 8x more than in India, and a staggering 20x more than Bangladesh, Senegal or Congo.
Granted, this might sound gigantic, but projects of this size are not unheard of. We – as a species – have built about 2 million kilometres of oil and gas pipelines. We have built tens of millions of kilometres of highways worldwide, 45000 airports etc. And of course, there would be no sense in building the entire solar array in one place, which is fine, because Mexico, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain and many other countries have excellent areas for such infrastructure and it is easily combined with other sources because you can simply turn it on and off. Importantly, it mixes well with wind, which is just another form of solar energy, because windmills don’t require a lot of space…which is why Germany put big plans in motion for wind power, as well.
And there we are, faced with a source of energy which sends us more in a single hour than what we spend in a year. We just have to learn to catch it.