2016 has arrived and on the excellent lyrics of Hair, I wanted to wish you a Happy New Year. Have you taken some good resolutions? I have certainly noticed more people in my gym this week. One of my goals for 2016 is to continue this column and manage to get an ever bigger readership. I am happy to dedicate some of my personal time for a few reasons:
- It is a great way to reconnect with you
- I love writing, especially about financial, economic and innovation topics
- I would like to have a column in a newspaper in the future.
To start this year, I am trying to skip the usual lists – I have no idea now in January what will be the most important events of the year. Rather, I am going to write a bit more about previously out-of-fashion countries / industries / ideas where I believe we are reaching an inflexion point. I am going to concentrate first over the next 3 stories on solar power. Billions were spent in recent years in many countries subsidizing solar power and colossal amount of capital wasted by investors on corporations building panels or operating solar farms. However, there could be good reasons that this industry is now more mature and ready to contribute to our lives in a bigger way.
First, how do you generate electricity from the Sun?
Solar cells are not new – actually we can trace back the first solar electricity production to 1839, when Mr Becquerel casually exposed a chemical battery to the sun to see if it produced a voltage. It did and the current generated represented only 1% of the solar power received on the battery. In the 1880’s, Charles Fritts used gold-plated selenium to produce current, at a 1% efficiency rate again. He concluded that solar cells could replace traditional power plants with individually powered residences. Thomas Edison had just invented the light bulb in 1878. Quite a prescient man!
Today, the manufacturing process requires many intensive steps:
- Take some pure silica or quartz gravel, treat them with phosphorous or boron to create silicon. While silica/quartz is cheap and widespread, Boron is a “rare earth” and costs $5 per gram (10 times costlier than silver)
- This silicon is not pure so you have to purify it in 2 steps. The first step transforms it into a metallurgical silicon that can be used in metal alloys. For solar panel and semiconductors (the chips in your laptop and mobile phone), we need a second purification. This is mightily energy intensive and multiply the price of this purer silicon by a factor of 10!
- Once the pure silicon is produced, it goes through yet another converting process enabling the silicon atoms to be positioned in a more robust crystal shape. The large blocks produced are then sliced into thin “wafers”. These wafers are cut by black diamonds and up to half the material is lost in the process.
- Assemble wafers together to form a panel, place electric contacts that will gather the electric current
- Add an anti-reflective coating: indeed, silicon reflects ⅓ of the light it receives so we need to reduce that loss.
- Seal the panel to protect it and you can mount it wherever you need
- Add electric cables, transformers, etc to complete the installation.
Through these several steps, there is much waste – I detailed these steps more on the blog itself. However, while there is wastage, the sun is still sending us lots of energy.
Second, how much energy can we garner from the sun?
Our sun is pouring a deluge of energy on Earth. We receive on the ground around 120PW – 120 petawatts (i.e. not reflected by the upper atmosphere) of energy from the sun. A petawatt is one million gigawatts (GW). One gigawatt is one billion watts (definition of a billion here).
In comparison, the new EPR nuclear reactors under construction in Finland and France have an electrical power of 1.6GW, which is therefore 75 million times lower. The Earth nuclear reactor fleet comprises currently 437 units with 66 under construction, with an installed capacity of 375GW, which is still 320,000 times lower than what we receive from the sun. Since nuclear is 12% of the electrical power output globally, we can calculate that the sun still delivers roughly 40,000 times more energy than what we humans produce! All that for free!
Harnessing this deluge of energy makes therefore sense.
The average power delivered per square meter on earth is calculated at 1,366W per square meter. Currently, solar panel technologies generally capture 20% of this power (remember that Mr becquerel and Fritts only managed a 1% efficiency). But this is achieved in best-case conditions such as peak insolation time, no clouds and being close to the equator for the best sunlight angle. Therefore, average operating conditions yield a more paltry 100W/sqm with the current technologies.
The sun pours dozens of petawatts on our heads at any given time. So why are we not using more solar power? There are many impediments which we will cover next week.
By the way, I am in New York the whole of next week – if you happen to be there and are available for a coffee or a burger, let me know.