What's driving Solar Power as a hot technology trend?

IMAGE: SolarCity


Solar power is hotter than ever: there are several recent examples in the news of solar-powered technology making a potentially transformative difference in how people live. Tesla's Powerwall could introduce a new option for people to live off the grid. Solar powered planes could change transportation. Solar technology is becoming cheaper and more versatile than ever before.

Here are a few examples and insights of what's contributing to this solar power boom, and what it might lead to in the future:

Solar Power is Liberating

Elon Musk is one of the most written-about entrepreneurs of his generation, and one of the reasons is that his goals as a business person are exceptionally audacious: he has chosen to start businesses with the goal of addressing what he sees as the biggest challenges facing humankind. Two of those challenges are energy and transportation. That's why Musk's electric car company, Tesla, has developed a new Powerwall solar-charged battery for the home, promising to store solar energy in a convenient package. If this technology develops far enough and becomes affordable enough, it could let people disconnect from the regular utility grid and help reduce reliance on fossil fuels like coal and oil burning power plants. The Powerwall is an ideal complement to Tesla's electric cars – ideally, someone could have a Tesla car parked in the garage which could recharge from the Powerwall battery attached to solar panels on the roof. The person's car and home could both be powered entirely by stored sunlight, thus providing liberation from the costly, dirty, air polluting ways of the old electric power grid.

The reason why the Powerwall is a big deal is because it's the first highly efficient battery of its kind to make it possible to “store” solar power. Solar panels have been around for a long time, but the power goes out when the sun goes down; there hasn't been an effective way to keep that power and use it later. The Powerwall could be an exciting new development that leads to massive changes in the way people power their homes. People used to power their homes with kerosene lamps and whale oil lamps; then electrical utilities started building power lines and connecting homes to the utility grid. But today, people are getting impatient with power outages and storm-related damage to power systems, not to mention the environmental problems of burning fossil fuels to make electricity. Tesla's Powerwall battery could potentially change the game.

Mass Adoption of Solar Panels is Coming

Elon Musk gets lots of media attention for his Tesla electric car company and his SpaceX private space exploration firm, but as Daniel Gross argues in Slate, Musk's third company, SolarCity, could be making an even bigger difference – for more people – sooner than either of those higher-profile endeavors. SolarCity is making it possible to mass-produce and install solar panels on homes more cheaply and efficiently than ever. Tesla is currently selling only 12,000 cars per year, but SolarCity already has more than 217,000 customers. SolarCity has used innovative financing options (letting people get solar panels via lease, with no money down) and is exploring new markets (selling solar panels to homeowners and small businesses, instead of focusing on the bigger companies like traditional solar panel companies have done) in an aggressive push to get more people to power their homes and businesses with sunlight. Solar panels used to be expensive, requiring an initial investment of $30,000 to $50,000, while the energy savings would slowly recoup that investment over time. SolarCity is making it possible for homeowners to start saving money on energy immediately, with no money down. Solar power used to be seen as something that was mainly for highly affluent green technology enthusiasts who were passionate about reducing their carbon footprint; SolarCity has the chance to make solar power mainstream.

Solar Power Will Force the Incumbent Technologies to Adapt

One important point about solar power is that we shouldn't expect too much from it – we're not about to all live in a radically different world where everyone gets all of their daily power supply from the sun. However, as this article in Slate (about solar-powered airplanes) points out, the promise of solar power is not that it's going to make oil, coal and gas obsolete – but that it's going to challenge the existing technologies to adapt and become more efficient.

For example, Ford and GM are introducing light hybrid systems to standard (non-hybrid) car models, making even the standard “old” style cars much more energy efficient – even if people aren't buying hybrid cars or electric cars, the innovation in these areas is making mainstream cars more efficient too. According to stats cited in Slate, the average car sold in America in 2015 is 25 percent more fuel-efficient than the typical car sold in 2007, and 65 percent of the new electricity-generating capacity in the U.S. built during 2015 has been from renewable energy sources (solar, wind, etc.). Even if Elon Musk doesn't get us all to install solar panels and buy Tesla cars, the innovations that his company is promoting are going to shape the broader industries and create a trickle-down effect of greater efficiency.

I'll be watching the growth of the solar power industry with great interest – hopefully this technology will lead to a more fuel-efficient and eco-friendly future, while liberating all of us from some of the limitations and environmental costs of the current system.



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