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Solar_Roadway_Parking_Lot_Prototype

(image: Dan Walden)

From companies wanting to install solar panels on your home for free to crazy tech advances to come, solar power is here to stay and looking bright.

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A popular stat floats around, saying Germany’s already drawing half its energy from solar power. Some well-researched pieces like this one are debunking that report, stating instead that on a good day Germany gets 20% its power from solar, and on bad days, maybe 1%, but it’s still proving to be a fast-rising factor in a very industrial country.

With Germany being roughly on the same line of latitude as Canada, with dark winters and frequent snow, it’s not exactly “ideal” for solar power. Not like, say, Arizona. Yet solar is working in Germany, and England too.

Solar innovation

It even works here in Canada, too, where a First Nations has turned to a radical farming experiment, growing the very expensive wasabi popular with sushi aficionados the world over, but doing so in greenhouses 100% powered by solar. In fact, they’ve been designated a “solar city.” Sure, in the Canadian winter, they don’t generate enough, so they live off the grid, but in the summer, they have a surplus, selling it back to the grid, ostensibly negating any costs they occur in the low season.

That ability to sell back to the grid makes solar power not just a solution, but an investment. That, and tech advances, are largely why solar installations in the USA shot up by a staggering 21% in the year leading up to September, 2014.

Solar panels Sydney

The sun’s for sale!

The ability to have solar panels on our homes, which we can then sell surplus back to the gfrid, that’s got a lot of homeowners excited. And businesses are cashing in on it with some innovative offers.

Take a social media friend of mine in Massachusetts, whose home was kitted out with solar panels from a company that’s essentially providing the panels for free in exchange to access to his roof. They benefit by signing him to a (on average) 20-30 year plan where his energy rates are locked in, with up to 3% annual adjustment for inflation, etc, but then they sell surplus energy to the grid. That “locked in” rate includes insurance and system repairs, which can take stress off homeowners.

It’s a great concept for people who aren’t handy and can’t afford to install the panels, but it’s probably not the best for long-term solutions if you can afford to install them yourself. If you can’t, and you’re looking for a creative solution to save money while helping the planet, maybe a contract like this is the solution for you.

America: all charged up!

Then again, maybe it’s too early to commit for anything that long-term.

After all, solar power has exploded in the last five years. Just five years ago it was considered untenable and a Band-aid solution to the energy crisis, but now it has taken the continent by storm. Wal-Mart has become one of its biggest proponents and partnered with the aforementioned Solar City company in an effort to create 100% green energy. Even pro sports are in on clean energy, with over 25 stadiums boasting solar panels installations. Then there are the massive solar “farms” cropping up everywhere.

These farms are called “photovoltaic power stations,” and of the 15 largest in the world, 11 are in America, with the largest being Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, California. Who’s funding it? None other than the world’s smartest investor, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. I’ve heard Buffet knows a thing or two about making bank on trends.

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(image: Tatmouss )

Solar future’s so bright

Solar and wind, for a long time, didn’t net the same return for costs as traditional fuels return. That’s changed. They’re now virtually on par for cost effectiveness, prompting many to say it may be time to end gas dependency after all.

That’s certainly true of the expensive tar sands oil extraction occurring here in Canada, where plunging oil prices make it the costliest oil on the planet.

Science is finding all kinds of ways to improve the future for solar too. Look at advances just recently, in finding a suitable replacement for the toxic cadmium chloride used in today’s cells, which they say will make solar panels cost a fraction of what they do today while being less toxic in their after-life.

Maximizing efficiency

In fact, some say we’re not even maximizing efficiency for what we have, and scientists in Australia tried to prove it by changing the solar arrays, which dramatically improved their ability to convert the sun’s energy, raising energy conversion output to over 40% and smashing records in the industry.

These same percentage conversions were achieved recently when researchers used Blu-Ray DVD tech to try some new surfacing approaches that capture way more protons, and thus ramping up the efficacy from the standard 22% energy conversion to that same 40%+ they achieved in Australia.

And what of the other creative application ideas we can expect to improve as the decade unfolds, like the test of the “solar freakin’ roadways!” being conducted on an Amsterdam bike path?

Or how about the totally-clear photovoltaic panel created by the University of Michigan that suggests we might one day have turn glass in every single window on the planet operating into a solar panel?

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(image: Hanjin )

What to do, what to do

For the moment, companies like Solar City kitting out homes and businesses in solar panels that might otherwise not be able to afford the conversion. That’s awesome!

But it’s also a risky investment, because you’re talking about locking in for 20- or 30-year terms. What if the solar panel today is the equivalent of an 8-track deck compared to an iPod in 20 years? Because that’s exactly the same speed that audio advanced. 8-tracks were the “new” audio technology in the early ‘80s, and iPod was king by 2006. That’s one hell of a leap. How would such advances translate in solar energy capture?

Yes, we’re doing amazing things, but the advances in just the last 5 years have been jaw-dropping. What’s to come by 2020? 2025? How soon should you go all-in on a technology that’s barely out of infancy?

The future

It’s a good question, and some are hedging their bets and going for it today. I can’t argue their commitment because I see pluses in making the jump, too. Climate change is happening now, and every bit that we do to change how we’re taxing the planet TODAY will pay off tomorrow, even if it might not be the most prudent choice for your wallet.

Either way, it’s definitely not too early to say that it’s Mother Earth who’ll be winning as this race to better technology continues.

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Steffani Cameron

Steffani Cameron is a Victoria BC-based writer on a variety of topics. Here on the BuildDirect blog, she specializes in writing about smaller, urban spaces. How do you make the most of your smaller space? How do you decorate it to suit you? And how do you wage the war against clutter and win? This is Steff’s specialty.