Photovoltaic (PV) cells made their debut in 1958 when they were launched into outer space on board the Vanguard Satellite. The PV cells proved so reliable that they have been an intricate part of powering our telecommunications industry ever since.
One of the many benefits to manufacturing solar cells is that their basic building block is centered around silicon, one of the most abundant elements on earth. Silicon is also the main substance found in beach sand.
The enormous growth in the world economy, reflecting both increase in population and rising affluence, is occurring on a planet that is no larger today than it was when we evolved some 4 million years ago. Yet the consequences of increasing human demands on the natural systems and resources such as our fossil fuels of a finite planet is being felt in every country around the world. Photovoltaics offer an alternative means of producing essential electric power without further endangering the delicate balance of our fragile ecosystems.
Rising carbon emissions were once favorably looked upon as a measure of economic growth and development. Estimated at 93 million tons in 1860, emissions jumped to 525 million tons by 1900, and to 1.62 billion tons by 1950. At the end of 1994, the atmosphere contained 4 billion more tons of carbon than just 12 months earlier.
Today's fastest rise in CO2 emissions occurs in the rapidly developing nations of Asia and Latin America. Though developing countries emit only 0.5 tons of carbon per person (compared with 3.0 tons per person in industrial countries and 20 tons per person in the U.S.), they already account for a third of the global total. Their contribution is growing fast enough to double every 4 years.
Following is a commentary discussing how restructuring in the electric power industry will be changing our society and the growing role photovoltaics will play in this new frontier.
Energy is the life blood of our modern day society. Without it, we wouldn’t have the transportation, manufacturing, communication and many other elements that support the complex lives we lead. Part and parcel with energy is electricity. Electricity now provides us with everything from heat for our homes to power for our appliances, communications, and computational capabilities. Energy and electricity are as vital to our modern society as food is to our bodies. Similar to the way food keeps our bodies running, electricity allows society to operate.
We pay different prices for different food. Some foods we eat because they taste good, other foods we eat because we know they are nutritious. Some food is important to us in its presentation and aesthetics and other food is simply for sustenance. It may seem reasonable to pay $35.00 for a lobster dinner in an elegant setting but we would be much less willing to pay the same amount for a plate of spaghetti at a diner. After all, we as humans place different values on all types of products and services depending on market forces and perceived quality. This concept has not held true for electricity in the U.S. because it has been a regulated monopolistic industry. This is changing as the era of deregulated electric power looms before us.
In the past, our society has depended on relatively few power sources that have been cheap and abundant, like a diet of hamburgers only. These energy sources such as oil and coal are limited and come with unaccounted costs (pollution, acid rain, global warming, Desert Storm). New technologies combined with restructuring of the electric power industry have the potential to improve the fare. We as individuals, can begin, in earnest, to incorporate energy sources into our diet that are more healthy and beneficial to society. Similar to satisfying our palate with both caviar and hamburgers, we each should diversify our energy consumption as well.
Photovoltaics (Solar Electricity) is just the advanced technology to improve our diet. It is based on silicon semiconductors, just like the integrated chip in our computers. There are no moving parts, combustion or fossil fuel to create noise, exhaust emissions, breakdown or run out of fuel. Photovoltaic cells simply create electricity when the sun is up. This technology is relatively expensive, but so is the escargot napolean or the membership to the health club. Dramatic reductions in price have already been demonstrated with increasing volume. With even greater demand, the price of photovoltaics will continue to drop. Electric power deregulation and further advancements in the technology will make the technology easy to use and more accessible.
You can choose the food you eat, but you have had little choice in your environment (aside from moving). It's time to start putting some photovoltaics on your menu. Your local utility company may have a new program for phototovoltaics.