Look back just 20 years in time. The year is 1991. There is no Google, no lap-tops or indeed many other things that now look like they’ve been here forever. Cell phones are only for the happy few and the World Wide Web, or what we now call 'the internet’, has only just been launched in August of this year. Then, in the twenty years from 1990 to 2010, worldwide mobile phone subscriptions grew from 12.4 million to over 4.6 billion. And between 2005 and 2010 alone, the number of internet users doubled, and was expected to surpass two billion in 2010. Looking back it looks like a complete revolution has taken place. But if you are old enough to have fully experienced this period, you’ll remember that it just felt that developments were progressing fast but also very smoothly.
So what can this ICT revolution teach us for the application of solar energy? Everybody loves solar energy, but the cost is still an obstacle. It’s not surprising so few people in the world are using photovoltaic solar energy. Will this cost-issue be solved soon? Will there be a revolution?
Looking into the future, ten years from now, the answer is a resounding yes. Let’s assume a conservative 5% cost and price reduction year on year from now on for Pv Systems or solar electricity. This calculation is based on technology improvements, economies of scale and other optimizations such as reduced transportation cost etc. And this is a conservative estimate, since in the past 10 years the yearly cost reductions have been higher. The astonishing and convincing result is that within ten years solar energy, even in the less sunny northern European countries, will be available at around €0.15/kWh. Compare this to today’s current cost of electricity from the grid! And would any sane person predict that the cost of fossil fuel-derived grid electricity will decrease over the coming decade? In the sunnier Southern European countries the cost will be even less than €0,10/kWh within this period. So, who then will still want to buy grid-electricity when solar energy is half the cost?
In 10 years, solar energy will be competitive in all residential PV markets in at least Europe and America. And in 20 years solar energy will be so cheap it will be competitive in any application; residential, commercial and utility scale power plants. Solar cells and modules will be so cheap they will become available in any size, form and color. How will this impact our lives?
Since it will be attractive to generate solar energy from any roof, facade or even any indoor and outdoor surface absorbing (day)light, all industries and consumers will be thinking electric. Solar electricity will become available everywhere at low cost. Small and large scale convenient energy-storage solutions will make the availability of cheap (solar) electricity possible anytime and anywhere in and outside buildings.
Excess solar energy which you don't use immediately can be saved for later, or for charging your electric vehicle - with this cheap solar energy, within 20 years the EV will be much cheaper to drive than an 'old timer' running on gasoline. And the car industry, already investing millions, will have kept up with this power revolution. Mass production will bring down the price of EVs to a level lower than the antiquated fossil fuel cars.
So, we’re looking forward to cheap sustainable energy for everybody around the world, an energy revolution, but has this revolution already started? The solar industry is growing like crazy. And this is not just due to its novelty or to a green commitment. Prices for solar systems are decreasing rapidly. Because of the scale of current investment (much of it Chinese), industrial companies and banks can predict that solar panels and systems will soon be produced competitively, and without depending on subsidies or government support. The investors are not all opportunists either, or crazy. With hundreds of millions being invested today in building new manufacturing plant, the global industry already includes hundreds of manufacturers. They all want to have a share of a market which will take a substantial percentage of the world energy mix within 10-20 years.
And then suddenly, in twenty years, solar energy will be there as if it had existed forever. It will be competitive and it will seem completely normal to everyone to rely on solar systems. Today, we may not see a solar revolution. But, we are already part of a solar evolution - and it’s developing fast.