Sunlight Brightens Our Energy Future

Article excerpt

New technologies could make solar power a conventional energy source within the next decade.

For nearly 40 years, solar power technology has been the holy grail for those in search of the perfect energy source. Its fuel, sunlight, is certainly plentiful. Estimates show that the sunlight striking the Earth in one second could meet the energy needs of the entire human race for 2,000 years.

Solar power technology is clean. Unlike coal, natural gas, or nuclear power, it emits no air pollutants or greenhouse gases, nor does it leave behind dangerous radioactive waste. And it doesn't require the construction of massive, expensive central power-generating stations or a nation-spanning electrical grid.

Now, with a speed catching many by surprise, our "solar future" may be upon us. Cheaper solar cell production processes; new, less expensive solar cell materials; the energy demands of the developing nations; and First World consumers' desire for clean energy could make solar power competitive with conventional technologies within the next 5 to 10 years.

Betting on photovoltaics

Two basic classes of solar power technology have emerged: photovoltaics (or PV, the technology that powers spacecraft, watches, and calculators), where sunlight is turned directly into electricity; and solar heating technology, where heat from the sun generates usable energy. Of these, PV is rushing to commercialization at a breakneck pace.

According to Steven Johnson, president of the energy consulting firm Sabrina Corporation of Golden, Colorado, "For the first time, PV manufacturers are actually making money." Around the world, countries are turning to PV to meet their electrical needs, and that "market pull" is having its effect. "The U.S. industry saw nearly 30 percent growth last year. We may be approaching a critical mass in the industry."

Experts like Johnson predict a billion-dollar-a-year solar power industry by the year 2000. Ultimately, they see a 9,000 megawatt, $27 billion potential market for PV in the United States alone.

The message is clear: PV isn't just for astronauts, calculators, and watches anymore.

The largest U.S.-owned manufacturer of PV products is Solarex, a business unit of Amoco-Enron Solar. Located in Frederick, Maryland, Solarex produced the PV modules that make up the rooftop array located on the Olympic swimming facility in Atlanta. According to Harvey Forest, CEO and president of Solarex, it's the largest PV rooftop installation in the world.

The $17 million swimming and diving facility houses two pools, seats 15,000 spectators, and contains 40,000 square feet (3,716 square meters) of Solarex photovoltaic modules on its roof. Those modules provide nearly 350 kilowatts of electric power, which offsets the electricity consumed by the building. It's estimated to save 25-30 percent of the buildings total electric bill, or about $33,000 per year.

"That particular installation helped put solar power back on the world's radar screen," Forest says.

Business is booming, he confirms. "We have a 4-megawatt project in Hawaii coming on line in 1998, and a project in India for upward of 50 megawatts" to be installed over the next several years. "And that's PV heaven for us," he says.

Siemens Solar, the PV arm of the Siemens Company, is the world's largest manufacturer of photovoltaics. The company recently celebrated producing its 100th megawatt of PV modules. "That's about one-fourth of the total installed base of PV worldwide," says Eric Daniels, director of marketing. And looking into the future, he predicts, "There's room to grow."

"About 83 megawatts were shipped by the entire solar industry in 1996," according to solar industry analyst Tom Jensen of Strategies Unlimited, a market analysis and strategic consulting firm in Mountain View, California. "That's up from 72 in 1995. And the industry is expected to finally surpass 100 megawatts per year in '97. …