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The Fourth Revolution – Energy Autonomy

It has been four years since completing my Masters in Solar Energy at the University of New South Wales (Australia) in 2007. I was very optimistic and bright eyed about the future but at that point in time the solar energy sector was very different than today.

The big difference was the price per Watt (measure of electrical power) of a solar module was increasing.

The high demand for the raw material (silica) that the solar modules are made from pushed up the cost of the panels as a result of the solar energy industry competing with the computing industry for the same raw material. No longer was the solar industry just using the scraps of Silicon Valley. In 2009 the distortion has been corrected by a number of large silica processing plants coming online to feed the insatiable demand for solar power.

This year is special, as it has seen a rapid drop in the price per Watt that has more than offset the few years of price increases. So the question is what economic forces are responsible for this? Leaders in the industry are saying it is mainly caused by economies of scale. This is when factors that cause a producer’s average cost per unit to fall as the scale of output is increased. For many years the solar industry touters have made the claim that the price for solar energy will start to decrease as soon as production is scaled up and now this year it has come true. In some countries it is predicted that installed solar will reach grid parity at retail level without the need for Government subsidies by 2015.

There is a well renowned Engineer/Technology futurist (Ray Kuzweil) who takes things a step further and predicts that solar energy will be the dominant form of energy by 2030 as a result of extrapolating the solar power yearly production growth rate, which is 40% per year and also advances in related scientific fields such as nanotechnology. Even though solar power is less than 1 % of the world’s energy production today, it will still out pace traditional oil/coal because of the mathematical laws of the exponential function due to solar high production growth rate.

Basically we are at the beginning of a major shift in the entire energy chain. Our energy grid of today will become relics of yesterday as solar prices decrease steadily and oil/gas prices behave erratically with an increasing upward trend in step with the increasing cost of exploring and producing new reserves in unstable and or remote places of the world.

I have my own solar energy company based in Trinidad and Tobago (Smart Energy Limited) and I have recently been to a few green energy expos/conferences that have shown me first hand the incredible changes taking place all around the world in this field that are generating a lot of excitement. For instance Ontario Canada’s feed in tariff programme that allows residential and commercial individuals to feed and sell solar power into the grid at premium electricity rate has become very successful. As a result more distributed power generators are springing up all over Ontario. Locally, financial institutions are also getting in on the act to finance large-scale renewable energy projects, because of the reliable rate of return on investment they have seen abroad.

The most important aspect of solar energy for me is not the brilliance of the technology or the conveniences it will bring us, but rather that it is a means of democratising our electrical energy supply in an environmentally sound way while giving us energy autonomy, which means real power to control our own lives in a direct and measurable way (kWh – measure of electrical energy).

Trinidad and Tobago’s electricity sector has some of the cheapest electricity in the world (6 US cents/kWh) as a result of natural gas reserves. This is an anomaly for the Caribbean region as other countries have high rates ranging from 30-50 US cents/kWh from having to import diesel/oil. Our cheap electricity has made it difficult for solar applications to penetrate our market without government intervention but unlike all other forms of energy, solar has the biggest potential for continual cost reduction that will eventually see it take root on our soil.

Ian Smart (MEngSci.) is an Instructor at UTT and CEO of Smart Energy Ltd- www.ttsmartenergy.com



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