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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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The future looks sunny for solar

16 June 2017

Solar energy is a no-brainer.

Instead of farting around trying to achieve sustained over-unity nuclear fusion here on earth, why not just harness the seemingly endless supply of energy from the fusion reactor we already have some 150 million Km away?

It seems to me that nature has done all the hard work and although the energy available at any instant in time tends to vary depending on time of day, season of the year and the amount of cloud-cover -- solar is a robust, reliable, ever-present source of immense power.

As time has gone on, technology has made it simpler and cheaper to extract an ever-greater percentage of the energy that ends up hitting the surface of the earth and these days it's not uncommon to see efficiencies of over 20% for reasonably priced photo-voltaic arrays (PVAs).

And that efficiency is, according to some researchers, about to grow by a factor of more than two!

This report published on the Science Daily website suggests that new strategies will enable most of the near-infrared energy that is currently lost to existing PVAs will soon be harnessed to lift efficiencies into the 50% area.

Now we're cooking!

A doubling of PVA efficiency could make solar a viable option in many areas where, to date, high latitudes, poor weather and other factors have compromised its cost-effectiveness.

But now we have a bit of a dilemma on our hands.

Hiking the efficiency of comparatively expensive PVAs is one strategy for extracting more of the available power from sunlight -- but there are others.

A lot of work is being done in the area of low-efficiency solar power and some of the results in this field also look very promising.

What the? Why would you even consider solar generators with efficiencies that are sometimes in single-digits? Surely these promised 50%+ PVAs will be the way to go?

Not necessarily. It's all about practicality and value.

Many of the low-efficiency solar technologies being developed right now are super cheap and super simple to install. Some of them are little more than a coat of paint!

Yes, the ability to paint a building, a roof or virtually any surface with a coating that turns 3-11% of the light which falls on it into electricity is a fantastic option for many reasons.

Firstly, the capital cost is low. There's no need to build extra structures to hold expensive PVAs or to reinforce existing structures to take the added weight that these arrays often represent.

Secondly, there's no "ugly blot" on the landscape caused by fields of shiny black panels.

Thirdly the installation time is very short -- a whole building could be done in a few short hours with the right spray equipment.

Other low-efficiency options include windows which convert some of the light passing through them into electricity. These would also be "covert solar", avoiding the need to festoon a building with traditional PVAs.

So which will eventually win the battle for solar-power dominance? The uber-efficient (but expensive) hi-tech PVAs which are all angled carefully to catch maximum sunlight and turn a very large percentage of that light into electricity? Or the el-cheapo "paint it on" low-efficiency alternative that makes up for its inefficiency by delivering massive areas of solar capture at a much lower cost?

To be honest -- I don't care. What I do care about however, is that we're obviously headed for a future where the vast majority of our energy requirements are delivered directly to our homes and businesses from the sun.

Roll on the future -- thanks to solar, it looks bright!

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