Over my seven years of writing about clean technology, I can confidently say that I have written more posts on solar technology than anything else. There are always new materials, methods and innovations that improve some aspect of the technology from higher conversion efficiency rates to the ability to be applied to many surfaces.
The general feeling has always been that we're still reaching for better efficiency and better materials in order for solar power to really become the future of energy generation -- it's just not ready yet -- but a new study from MIT says that solar technology is already good enough.
In the very large report (332 pages) called The Future of Solar Energy, researchers say that current crystalline silicon photovoltaic technology (the predominant technology used in solar panels) is capable of generating multi-terawatt-scale power by 2050. To put that in perspective, the largest active solar installation in the world is the Topaz plant in California that has a 550-megawatt capacity. A terawatt is 1,000,000 megawatts.
According to the authors, "Solar electricity generation is one of very few low-carbon energy technologies with the potential to grow to very large scale."
That doesn't mean that we should stop innovating, in fact the study says that improvements in all types of solar technologies are needed, but that the biggest hurdle is, you guessed it, money.
The authors say that large-scale solar installations are needed to curb our carbon emissions in the future, but the only way to get more and better solar is for it to be more cost effective and that will come down to better investments and government subsidies. Currently, solar receives far fewer subsidies than fossil fuels, but a shift in those policies could transform the energy mix of the U.S. Meanwhile, greater investments would help to develop technologies that cost less to produce and install like thin-film wafers.
The other major hurdle is funding technologies that would ease the integration of solar power into the grid, like smart grid infrastructure and energy storage technologies that could provide clean energy during peak demand hours and at times when the sun wasn't shining.
The good news is that current solar resources dwarf current and projected future electricity demand. If we can remove the roadblocks, especially fossil-fuel-leaning government policies, solar is ready for prime time now.