The sun, an inexhaustible source of energy
Photovoltaic panels began to be used to generate electricity some 30 years ago. Since then, however, the cost of manufacturing them has dropped so much and their efficiency has improved so dramatically that solar power is now the cheapest form of energy. And this is only the beginning!
“The sun is the most promising source of energy for the future”, says Stijn Scheerlinck, manager of the Solar Lab facility at ENGIE Lab, the ENGIE Group’s research centre in Belgium. Every day Stijn pursues his investigations at the lab to determine the most efficient ways of producing electricity from sunlight and to map out the future of solar generation. There is not a shred of doubt in his mind: “While at present we still consider the sun an alternative source of energy, a few years from now it will be our prime and most important source. We will have a different outlook then. Solar power will be everywhere. The technology is already providing innovative solutions. To give you an example, we are now conducting tests to generate solar energy based on textiles!”
Sunlight, a highly efficient energy source
The figures prove Stijn right. In recent years the efficiency of solar panels has increased by leaps and bounds. Whereas 30 years ago the efficiency of a typical photovoltaic panel used by a homeowner was just about 15%, today it is 20 to 25%, depending on operating conditions. There already exist panels – used to power satellites – which provide 45% efficiency. The maximum capacity of photovoltaic panels has increased threefold over the past decade alone, up from 100 Wp (watt per peak hour) to 300 Wp. Rapid, steady progress is forecast in the coming years.
The cheapest form of energy
At the same time, the cost of photovoltaic panels has decreased dramatically. The average price of a photovoltaic system is currently about €6,000 – half what it cost just a few years ago. As a result, solar energy production is becoming less and less expensive.
In fact, solar power is already the least expensive form of energy. In some regions of the world, and under certain conditions, its price is as low as €40 per megawatt-hour. In Belgium, given its climate, a megawatt-hour costs €100, which however is still cheaper than the regulated tariff for domestic consumers.
In our country, one household in 12 owns a rooftop solar system. Solar energy is now a mature technology with a… very sunny future – all the more so since the investment can be recouped in under 10 years.
Protecting the environment
A further advantage of solar energy is that it has almost no negative impacts on the environment. Apart from the manufacture of the panels themselves and of other technical components, solar energy generation is 100% environmentally friendly. Whether supplying power to homes, industries or remote off-grid regions, solar energy releases no pollutants.
Solar energy is therefore the best alternative to fossil fuels. Moreover, photovoltaic panels are made of silicon, a very inexpensive and widely available raw material. Most panels are therefore manufactured without using any rare earth elements.
Looking to the future
While it is true that today solar power only accounts for 1% of global electricity generation, a sea change is under way. Currently, total installed capacity amounts to 300 gigawatts, including 75 gigawatts in 2016 alone. It is therefore only natural for ENGIE – via the Solar Lab – to promote the use of this technology and to pursue its development. The company is investing a great deal of time and resources in developing and testing new systems, particularly in the fields of solar energy conversion and the storage of electricity.
Solar Lab’s mission is to bring together all the factors present today in the solar energy market in order to identify the most effective and most advantageous combinations of these factors. The ultimate goal is to help bring about a more energy-efficient and less fossil-fuel dependent society and – it goes without saying – to offer consumers more efficient, affordable and environmentally friendly services. In short, solar energy is an inexhaustible source of power which will continue to meet our energy requirements for a long time to come, and ENGIE intends to continue playing a major role in its development.
You may also want to read: Solar energy’s boundless potential.