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Last updated: 07 June 2018

What Do We Need to Go Solar?

The Path of Renewable Energy and the Alternative Threats

Given current estimates on future energy demand and environmental sustainability requirements, as much as 25,000 GW of zero­carbon energy will be needed to reach the international community’s goal of avoiding anthropogenic climate destabilisation by 2050. In one of the best case scenarios, the International Energy Agency set as a target for photovoltaic systems to supply roughly 50% of the world’s projected electricity demand by that year.

The general feeling seems to be that solar panels require a great increase in efficiency and in the quality of its materials in order to really become the future energy source that we need. However, reaching those objectives might turn out to be not a matter of technological improvement, but of large­scale investment.

According to a 2015 report by the MIT called "The Future of Solar Energy", current crystalline silicon photovoltaic technology (the predominant technology used in solar panels) is capable of generating multi­terawatt­scale power by 2050 without any major technological advances. They find it to be “one of very few low­carbon energy technologies with the potential to grow to very large scale." Also, they found there to be “no major commodity material constraints for terawatt­scale PV deployment through 2050.

Therefore, with no major technological advancement needed and no impediment in what refers to resource availability, the largest hurdle to overcome in order to reach our environmental objectives through solar panels seems to be the lack of investment. According to the authors, solar energy must become more cost­effective in order to reach the large­scale installations that we need to meet our energy demands. For this to happen, better investments and government subsidies are required. Shifting government fiscal policy from subsidising fossil fuels towards solar energy and other renewables is imperative to making solar energy cost effective at a large­scale.

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The Pioneer of the Solar Revolution

Luckily, there are some investors that will not just wait for governments to act, who see the potential and opportunity of solar panels and desire to propel us into the future. Perhaps, the most clear example of such kind of entrepreneur is Elon Musk. Tesla is about to to buy solar panel company SolarCity for $2.6 billion in an all­stock deal with the intention of being the Con Ed of solar energy, he wants Tesla to be the first company that generates, stores and transports solar energy in the large­scale. Also, he is not aiming for 2050, he is thinking about reaching his objectives with Tesla in about 10 years down the road.

The trends seem to be on his side: solar panel prices are dropping dramatically as their power generating capacity increases following their own variant of Moore’s Law. Swanson's Law says that the price of solar photovoltaic modules tends to drop 20 percent for every doubling of cumulative shipped volume. At current rates, costs drop 50 percent about every 10 years. Worldwide, solar energy is becoming more competitive against fossil fuels. The clearest examples are in Mexico, Dubai and India where they are becoming competitive without any need of subsidies.

Each hour the sun beams enough energy onto the earth to satisfy global energy needs for a year. We must ask ourselves then if Musk is a rare event in our current system or if he represents a new generation of entrepreneurs who will lead us to a cleaner, more sustainable future. With a lack of an answer to this question in the near future, it is clear that government policy should push forward in the direction of solar energy and other renewables if we wish to live in a world with clean energy and a healthy climate.