Solar Power: Cost and Reliability Make It the Perfect Energy Source


For years, debate has been jam-packed on issues like climate change, sustainability, gas prices, and the state of the environment. So much of the current debate revolves around one important policy issue: energy. Even though our dependence on foreign oil is nearing an all time low, the need to address energy that millenials' kids can use — renewable energy — still haunts nature lovers like me. 

Breakthroughs in scientific research get eaten up by science nerds, but more generally unless it effects daily life, nobody cares. Unless it impacts the market as a whole, nobody cares. But when it comes to renewable energy, that trend is changing: the rise of solar energy has become more than a novelty, it is now price-competitive with coal and natural gas. You and your wallet should be thankful for the nerds in the white coats.

Speaking in terms of energy costs, a single watt runs about $3 when produced by a coal plant. That cost drops to about $1 when produced via natural gas. But check this out: We can now get a watt for less than a dollar. The best part? The input cost is free!

The exponential decay you can see one the graph (and boy is this a pleasant decaying process) is known as the Swanson effect. It mirrors another modern phenomenon, Moore's Law, which states that the amount of computer power we can fit on a little computer chip doubles roughly every 2 years. To keep the magnitude of this in perspective, a singing birthday card from Hallmark has more computing power on it than the Allied forces had in 1945.

The exponential fall in costs for energy, moreover through a process that can be continued ad infinitum, cannot be underscored enough whether we're talking environment, foreign policy, or climate change. 

As Geoffery Carr from the Economist mentions however, comparing costs straight across is naive insofar as it overlooks the reliability of these different ways of producing energy. For instance, wind and solar energy carry the obvious knack: what if it isn't windy today? What if the sun fails to bless us with its rays?

Carr notes, "Many organisations, both academic and commercial, are working on ways to store electricity when it is in surplus, so that it can be used when it is scarce."

But for true skeptics, relying on an excess of this energy may not be adequate. But do not fear, the scientists are here! David Carroll, a researcher from Wake Forest, has already unveiled a technology that will allows solar panels to collect energy even when it's not sunny out.

The Wake Forest research has the potential to erase the problem pointed out by Geoffrey Carr. Unlike flat solar panels, which are great for collecting rays when its most sunny out (usually from 10 a.m.- 2 p.m.), Carroll's device is gathering watts from sun-up to sun-down.

F*ck yeah, science!

Solar energy is a way for us to continue our modern lifestyle without, you know, decimating the world for our kids. The fall in price means it is not just something for science nerds to celebrate. The fall in price means solar is not just environmentally viable, but economically viable too. Here's to a brighter future.