Anyone who has been paying attention to the business pages, particularly those covering the energy market, has noticed two recent trends: Old King Coal is dying, and solar power is on the verge of new breakthroughs which, with other renewable energy sources, will transform the energy landscape forever. It’s not difficult to see that both of these trends are intimately related to one another.
As the technology for solar power cells improves in terms of how efficiently they convert sunlight to electricity, so too has its price fallen to the point where economy-of-scale is or will soon take over. At the exact same time, the worldwide demand for thermal coal as a fuel source for electricity generation has crashed. Solar power has nearly achieved the goal of reaching grid-parity with coal, meaning that it is now no more expensive to produce electricity through solar cells than it is burning coal. This has been among the factors driving the death-spiral of coal in the world market, along with the exploitation of cheap and abundant natural gas. Another driver has been the increasing awareness of the environmental costs of burning coal. This last factor motivated the Chinese to cancel construction on a planned 100 new coal-fired electricity plants and to begin plowing a multibillion dollar investment in solar development. In Germany, which has been one of the world leaders in the development of green energy technology, a component of their master plan, the Energiewende, is to phase out coal electrical production by 2040. Other nations are rapidly de-converting from coal to adopt solar and other renewable energy production methods. These will far outstrip coal-fired electricity generation and provide a cheaper and more attractive alternative to nuclear power.
Renewable energy costs continue to decline, as this website outlines. This is not only a result of a scale-up to utility level generation but also for home-owned energy generation. Consequently, research into improvements in the energy-capturing capacity of solar PV cells is accelerating. Recent investigation conducted at Lund University in Sweden has produced a dramatic discovery that will only further drive down the price for solar power and improve its efficiency. The development of an iron-based dye to coat PV cells through a new method promises to replace ruthenium, a rarer metal, for the same conversion yield but at far lower cost. These advances are almost certain to permanently alter the picture for energy production beyond recognition.