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Solar Electric Energy:  Why isn't it mainstream yet?

Courtesy Lend Lease

Let's have a serious talk. Solar energy (also known as photovoltaic energy back then) has been around for what, 139 years (if my math is right). That's over a century! So why isn't it a mainstay feature in houses and businesses right now?

With the ever-rising cost in energy, many people have been looking to alternative sources of energy. And what better way to harness it from the greatest energy source – OUR SUN.

A little sunny history

The discovery of solar cells started way back in 1876. William Grylls Adams with a student of his, Richard Day, found out that when selenium was exposed to light, it emits electricity. One electricity expert, Werner von Siemens, claimed that the discovery was scientifically one of the most far-reaching importance.

  • In 1953, Calvin Fuller with his colleagues discovered the silicon solar cell, a cell that was powerful enough to run small electrical devices. The New York Times stated that the discovery was "the beginning of a new era."
  • In 1956, the first solar cells becomes commercially available. The cost back then is too expensive for common people. At $300 for a 1-watt solar cell, it was beyond anyone's means. The first items to contain solar cells were novelty toys and radios.
  • •In the late 1950 and early 1960, all satellites in the USA's and Soviet's space program were driven by solar cells and in the late 1960's solar power was chiefly the standard for running space satellites.
  • The period from the 1970's to the 1990's showed quite an adjustment in the use of solar cells. They began being used on railroad crossings, in isolated places to power households.
  • Today, we see them almost everywhere. Cars, aircrafts, homes and even calculators.

Yet, somehow, it feels as if this technology that was supposed to "usher the beginning of new era" is underused, underappreciated and undervalued.

What's keeping us from a more widespread adoption of solar technology?

Solar power, in truth has achieved some success in several places in the US where the price of retail electricity often exceed the leveled costs for solar technology.

Solar is an intermittent source of energy, which means that it will not power your house at night, which makes either grid connection or multi-energy systems a requirement. And since the latter requires a high cost, grid connections have been sought with the public utilities... and they're not really cheap either.

A lot also depends on regulatory and institutional environment in a country. In the US, the deregulated climate presents a good opportunity. In some counties where rigid regulation still persists, this means a slow process.

The more rural you are, the more solar you see!

On other hand, neglected or inaccessible remote and rural areas are seeing a surge and private-public interest in the renewal energy source.

The bottom-line: solar energy is not being fully utilized because of the institutions and regulatory commissions. Moreover, it is still a difficult process for consumers to educate themselves and get a system installed. These are the common barriers to mainstream adoption.

In some countries like Australia, solar power is a relatively common energy source. Commercial, industrial and residential can all choose solar as main electricity. The combination of Australia's dry climate and latitude give it high benefits and potential for solar energy production. Projects are common among the regions and new communities like Gold Coast display village are good places for implementation.

Is it worth it for the average homeowner?

Solar panels need to be paired with batteries to store power and work throughout the day. Here's the deal. While the cost of solar panels is low, battery technology is STILL costly. This makes the total cost of owning it only a tad different. For the average consumer, there isn't enough reason to switch power sources (unless they're a full supporter of renewable energy). The finances needed to set up solar energy doesn't always justify the output you'll receive from it. You also need a hefty amount of space to mount solar panels, making it prone to costs.

But the great thing is, technology is always improving and science is always on the lookout for cheaper and more efficient way to utilize solar energy. What's the future? So here's a good news for Aussies. By 2018, half of Australian homes are expected to adopt solar power and many move completely 'off grid'..

Why such a sudden turnaround and optimism?  A lithium ion battery that's expected to cost less than £2,600 and will be available in Australia – one of the first foreign markets to receive it – by the end of the year!  This will revolutionize energy storage and make solar electricity a more realistic and affordable option for the masses.

Good for them! And for the rest of the world too.