The price of solar modules is dropping fast. From 2006 to 2014 the price of solar modules has dropped from $3.25 to $0.72 per watt and continues to drop further. In some parts of the world energy from solar is competitive with conventional sources of energy production even without government subsidies. But if we consider the cost to the environment from conventional fossil fuel based energy sources, solar may in fact be cheaper. This lowering of PV cost has opened up promising new ways to provide access to energy to energy starved population in this world.
Annual per capita electricity consumption of OECD countries was 9,123.61 kWh in 2006, but compared to that the per capita energy consumption of China was about 2,600 kWh in 2008 and India’s was 500 kWh in 2007. If we are to provide energy usage on par with the OECD countries we would need to generate additional thousands of kWh per capita annually. Conventional fossil fuel based generation of energy produces harmful gases, such as, CO, CO2, NO, NO2, SO2, and SO3. The estimated social cost of CO2 generation is reported to be in the range of $0.03 to $0.15 per kWh. Hence trying to generate power through conventional means to meet the energy requirement will be an environmental and social disaster. But this lack of access to energy is stopping vast majority of people living on this planet from participating completely in the modern world. Consequently, we are not benefitting from unleashing the full human potential.
Distributed energy – rewriting the rules
One of the biggest benefits of solar energy is that it frees the consumer from the tyranny of the distribution system. Since, the advent of modern energy consumption and distribution system, the main concept of energy production and distribution has been based on a model, where energy is produced in a centralized location, and then distributed to the customer through various efficient and inefficient distribution systems. The individual consumer has no control over the distribution and generation of the energy. In developing countries it meant that people were prisoners of their government’s planning, execution and access to resources. But low cost solar changes it all, as solar energy can be consumed at the source; there is no need to be dependent on the utility model for energy production and distribution. Individual consumers can have more control over, and access to, energy and it also helps resource starved societies from investing and maintaining expensive distribution systems.
Access to energy
The information highway has connected people from all over the world to all of human knowledge with the click of a button. We no longer have to go through all the gate-keepers at various places to access knowledge and participate in the world economy. To paraphrase Thomas Friedman (Author of “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century”), in our flat world it is better to be an “A” student in Shanghai or Bangalore than a “B” student in New York. But for that assertion to be completely true, that “A” student in Bangalore also needs access to energy to complete his vision. Solar energy can provide this access to energy as individuals can get greater control of their energy production and consumption. Of course many technical innovations are still needed in order to connect people to the energy highway, namely, storage as the solar generation is not available at night and also it changes with weather condition. But one can also achieve the most from their solar energy generation by smart use of their resources, where one synchronizes their consumption based on generation. We are at the threshold of a new wave of human innovation as more and more humans connect to the modern world through information and energy highway. It is an exciting time.