Ever cheaper solar energy with Swanson's law
Since the development of solar cells started, the production costs have gone down at a steady pace. For every time the production capacity of solar cells doubles, the costs go down with more or less 20%. This observation is called "Swanson's law" and the effect has caused the average price per watt peak to drop from over 100 US dollar in the seventies to (far) below one US dollar these days and made solar energy available to the large public and commercial use.
When this development is projected to coming decades, we can expect the costs of solar energy to keep decreasing. Every fall in costs accelerates the adoption of the technology, which in its turn leads to a new decrease in prices, etc.; both effects are driving each other. The International Energy Agency expects the average costs in 2050 to have fallen to 5-8 US cents per kWh, but for the time being solar energy is already produced for less at some (sunny) places around the world. In any case, we can be certain that solar energy is to become one of the major players in the future energy landscape.
IEA Technology Roadmaps for Solar Electricity (PDF)
Technical developments for solar energy
On a global scale, much effort by scientists, researchers and companies is being invested in making future solar energy better, cheaper and easier to use.
The technological performance of solar cells is in a continuous process of improvement. A present day commercial solar cell is capable of capturing 18-20% of the light that lands on it. The performance of cells has steadily grown since the start of their development and it will continue to do so in the future. The record of module efficiency in the lab at this moment goes up to almost 35%. These modules are not for sale yet, but it's expected that in the future these numbers become commercially available for everyone.
In addition, the way we use photovoltaic (PV) energy in our day-to-day lives is expanded by the development of all new kinds of technologies and applications. We already see small solar cells in simple objects like flashlights or backpacks. In the future we might get used to seeing solar energy being generated in roads, on water basins or even in planes.
Converting sunlight on the road surface into electricity
Combination with energy storage is key
Solar energy has the benefit of being produced at the moment when we use it the most: during daytime. At the same time, we also want to be able to use solar energy during the dark hours. And from a more technical perspective, we need to avoid high peaks on the energy grid on very sunny (and windy) days. Reliable and affordable energy storage solutions help with this, and are therefore key to making a success of solar energy.
In the future, energy probably will be stored in a broad variety of ways: it might be in a decentral solution (at your home) for example in your electric car, or in a centralized solution with for example a battery at a solar farm or in a "super-battery" on (CO2-neutral)-ammonia near a windfarm or power plant.
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