Perspective: Is Our Energy Past Its Cell-By Date? NO Solar Power like This Costs Too Much YES Power Cells as Used in Space May Be the Answer an Impending Energy Crisis Has Seen the Search for Alternative Fuel Sources Take Centre Stage. Steve Curtis Thinks We Need Look No Further Than the Photovoltaic Cell

Article excerpt

Byline: Steve Curtis

There's no escaping it. Not since the oil crisis of the 1970s has energy generation been such a hot political issue. On a global stage, the Americans have invaded Iraq and the price of oil is going through the roof.

Closer to home, the British have managed to voluntarily close down their principle electricity source (coal mines) just in time to see their North Sea oil reserves run out.

Once pagan sources of electricity generation such as the wind and tides have crept into mainstream government discussions and amidst the excitement, a few sober realists are pointing out that nothing quite pumps out the megawatts like Sellafield.

But what about solar power? Even a bleak and windswept little island like Britain manages to catch a bit of sun and it's long been known that solar power can be converted directly into electricity using photovoltaic cells.

When I was a kid there was a passing craze for water heating panels you had to strap to the side of your roof. Eventually it turned out that the cost of the electricity you saved was peanuts compared to the cost of installing the system. But we have moved on since then. Photovoltaic cells were invented by the Bell labs in the States in the 1950s. They're made out of two sheets of silicon that produce electricity whenever sunlight falls on them. Early solar cells were hopelessly inefficient but modern cells convert about 15 per cent of the suns power into electricity. This time, solar panels might run your lamp shade and your television set rather than just the hot water supply.

I f we look at a conventional coal fired power station, it's important to remember that about a quarter of the power generated will be lost in the form of heat during transmission by the time it reaches your house. In contrast, a solar power station on your roof delivers the power directly into your house.

It's been calculated that the power from the sun could produce about 10,000 times more electricity than the whole world presently consumes.

The world is a crowded place but there's still plenty of sun drenched wilderness out there.

If we laid out a series of photovoltaic cells across just one small part of the Sahara Desert, we could make enough electricity for the whole world so why isn't it happening? Ever since the dawn of the nuclear age, fantastic new ideas for one energy source or another have been two a penny. Few of them ever become main stream. In particular, the supporters of 'clean' energy tend to describe power stations in terms of how many houses they could supply.

Remember that only about half of our electricity is consumed by houses and that such figures are usually quoted for power output levels in optimum conditions. Much of the time, solar, like wind energy, would be completely useless.

In the 1970s, photovoltaic cells were still confined to space craft and other fabulously expensive pieces of technology. But the cost of manufacturing a photovoltaic cell has fallen since the 1970s by more than 90 per cent and the technology is on the edge of becoming viable.

Given a similar rate of progress, the cost may be genuinely competitive within ten years.

Part of the problem is the success of privatisation in British electricity production. In particular, gas fuelled power stations have led to a dramatic fall in the cost of mains electricity and whilst this may have delighted consumers, it has left some of the more environmentally sound power concepts far behind.

No matter how passionate you may feel about 'green' issues, you'd think twice about doubling your electricity bill for the good of the planet.

Many proponents of alternative energy openly moan about just how cheap mainstream power has become and sit around dreaming of some dreadful energy crisis that will bring them back into the fold.

It probably hasn't escaped your attention that some of the personalities who become excited about 'green' issues are a tad eccentric. …