Global Photovoltaics: The Little Engine That Could

When Ron Pernick co-founded the green-tech market research company Clean Edge back in 2000, he made a bold prediction. By 2010, he said, solar power would be a $23.5 billion industry.

To say that Pernick’s prediction was greeted with skepticism is somewhat of an understatement. In 2000, sales of photovoltaics (PVs) totaled $2.5 billion, worldwide. Pernick himself, who at the time, had already been an accomplished market researcher for over a decade, had no idea just how wrong his prediction would be. Last year, the global market for photovoltaics totaled $71.2 billion, thrice what Pernick had predicted.

For many, coming to grips with the solar industry’s growth is like having to admit the earth is flat after all. While statistic after statistic show that solar energy has become cheaper, faster and smarter over the last decade, skeptics still abound.

Take, for example, this stunning statistic: Between the years 1998 and 2010, installation costs for PV systems declined by 43%. This data comes from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a respected member of the national laboratory system supported by the Department of Energy, whose team of scientists include Nobel Prize recipients, as well as recipients of the nation’s highest award for scientific research, the National Medal of Science.

In almost any other industry, a 43% decline in costs in little more than a decade’s time would be heralded as a major achievement. The American media barely blinked. Even many of those who do acknowledge the progress the solar industry has made over the last decade still proclaim that solar energy will never be a feasible alternative to conventional energy sources.

At every point of the solar industry’s success, there seems to be a feeling that it will go no further. That, however, is not terribly unusual when it comes to scientific advances. William Arthur Ward’s famous maxim, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it,” seems to infer the converse: If you can’t imagine it, it can’t be done. Meanwhile, solar just keeps chugging forward, seemingly immune to the naysayers.

Where will the next great innovation come in solar technology? There are a number of researchers contending for that honor. The solar company Pythagoras Solar is banking on BIPV, building integrated photovoltaics. They’ve developed a window with solar cells encased between double panes of glass, a window that simultaneously generates and saves electricity. The company recently won a grant from General Electric’s “Ecomagination Challenge.” That award attracted enough investors to put the window into production. Some have already been installed in Chicago at Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower.

The development of solar paint technology is making strides as well. Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada, in conjunction with those at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, are readying to present solar paint advancements in an upcoming issue of ACS Nano. They’ve been working on a paste made of quantum dots. Using tiny semiconductor nanocrystals, the material captures almost all visible sunlight.

One of the most promising recent innovations in photovoltaic technology comes from a new solar company, HyperSolar. Rather than develop PV panels, HyperSolar is manufacturing a thin, magnifying film that increases the efficiency of existing solar panels by as much as 300%. Through a technique called photonics, the film collects and delivers more sunlight into conventional solar cells.

Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have discovered that by using an organic plastic semiconductor, the number of electrons in sunlight that are captured by solar cells could be doubled. In conventional PV solar panels, some electrons are too high-energy, or too “hot,” to be converted into electricity. Using pentacene, a type of plastic, prevents the hot electrons from being lost to heat.

Ten years ago, there was no clear path forward for any of these new technologies, but the solar engine kept chugging ahead, confounding those whose imagination could not embrace possibilities for advancement. So what is Ron Pernick’s Clean Edge prediction for the next decade? According to their “Clean Energy Trends 2011” report released earlier this year, solar photovoltaics are projected to grow from a $71.2 billion industry in 2010 to $113.6 billion by 2020.

Predictions are always risky. Who knows? That one may be wrong, too. Solar PV might just triple the prediction yet again…

Brittany Mauriss is the editor and solar blogger for CalFinder.com, a free service that connects you with solar contractors and energy-efficientwindow estimates. Her passions are renewable energy, indie music and creative writing.

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