With the climate crisis being a consideration at the forefront of energy generation today, it's no surprise that solar power is receiving so much good press. However, despite that, there's very slow adoption of the alternative energy source. In the US, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy mentions that there's enough solar power generation to power twelve million American households. Yet, in a country with over three hundred million residents, this seems like a drop in the bucket. Why has solar not garnered the sort of traction one would expect for a population that's so involved in changing over to alternative fuels?
Solar Used to Be Expensive, But Not Anymore
One of the most common statements used to defend solar energy's low adoption rate is how expensive solar panels used to be in the past. However, according to PV Magazine, solar panels cost has dropped to around 70c per watt and is still falling today. As with all new technology, as it became more widely used, the price began to drop. NASA requires solar panels for their missions, and residential and commercial users started adopting these panels and putting them to use on the ground. The amount of money put into R&D for panels in the early days of the space program ensured that these new panels' efficiency remained high.
The bulk of the cost for fossil fuel power generation comes from their supply. The journal Energy Policy underlines that as much as 40% of the total cost of coal-powered plants comes from acquiring the coal they need to burn in the first place. Conversely, things like the sun and wind energy are free and easily harnessable, removing the need for buying raw material to burn. Additionally, solar panels give individual responsibility to the person using them. If the panels are being installed into a commercial or residential building, the owner can choose how they use their energy.
Thinking Green - The Impact of Solar Power on Greenhouse Emissions
Probably the largest elephant in the room when it comes to discussing fossil fuels in power generation is the massive carbon footprint it has. This concern has been the source of worry since these emissions are responsible for starting a runaway greenhouse effect, causing severe climate and weather pattern changes worldwide. There are many solar panels in use in the US right now, but the volume is too small to make a significant dent in the global warming trend. With so many people concerned about oil and coal, many fossil fuel power generation stations have switched to natural gas. The raw material for these plants has decreased in price since the recent glut due to American fracking. While natural gas plants do pollute less than oil and coal-fired plants, they are still significant contributors to greenhouse emissions. A natural gas power plant only produces 60% of the pollution as a coal-fired or oil generation plant.
The Unwritten Favor that Fossil Fuels Get
With these two significant pillars fueling its adoption, you'd think that renewable energy might be replacing fossil fuels in a big way. Unfortunately, you'd be wrong in that assumption. The industry seems heavily skewed towards fossil fuels. For businesses whose main aim is profit, it's far more economically feasible to change over the raw material of an existing plant than to construct a new renewables plant. Additionally, the investors in power companies expect a specific rate of return in their investments. The quality of return they get from fossil fuels makes it more attractive to run those types of plants instead of renewables.
The "lock-in" effect is what's been keeping renewables from taking over the market in a way that you'd expect—the majority of costs in a power plant come from construction. With fossil fuel plants built in the twentieth century, there's no need to expend that money all over again. The plant's already built, and it can keep operating indefinitely until it's no longer viable. The economic reality is that paying to develop a renewables plant doesn't have the same level of promised return as yet.
Coupled with the constant iteration of the technology, it's just not viable to construct new renewable plants. The tech will continue to evolve rapidly, requiring plants to start retrofitting their systems almost as soon as the plant is finished building. This ongoing upkeep cost is what makes investors wary about renewable energy sources. However, the investors may not have the final say in this battle.
A Slow Road, But Change is Coming
While large companies may not see the benefit of solar and wind renewables, it's found a considerable following within the population. In affluent countries, renewable energy is a significant contributor to the country's power generation numbers. In the developing world, individuals are seeing the use of being independent of the national grid. The cost of panels will continue to fall as efficiency rises, making it much more viable for individuals to invest in renewable energy. Larger companies, too, are getting help to switch over their production facilities to more renewable sources. Solar may not have had its proverbial "day in the sun" as yet, but it's only a matter of time before it does.