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Solar Panels – Why So Long to Hit the Shops?
THE SEPTEMBER 2006 ISSUE OF SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN was dedicated to exploring the future of energy beyond the carbon age.
The editors shared a sobering perspective: “Decades may pass before hydrogen trucks and cars relegate gasoline and diesel vehicles to antique car shows.” Until that happens, we’ll manage somehow.
But why does it take so long for some energy technologies to move from laboratory and industrial applications to serving consumers?
Take solar panelsfor example.
A high street electronics chain in London is now selling educational solar power kits for around £20. Serious rooftop solar panels that will power your home’s equipment sell in DIY superstores for around £2,500. It’s a prize for the wealthy or the highly engaged, but at least consumers can push their carts beyond the technology.
SOLAR PANELS HAVE ONLY RECENTLY APPEARED on retail shelves, so you’d forgive them for masquerading as new technology.
But they are not. As England prepared for what would become their most famous World Cup, a contributor to the July 1966 edition of wireless world faces a copy deadline for the magazine. His name was D. Bollen, and he provided a circuit for a solar-powered battery charger. As he put it, “The ability of solar cells to directly convert sunlight into useful electrical energy has been well demonstrated in satellite applications.
One of the advantages of the solar battery is that it allows true unattended operation in locations far from a power supply and…promises an exceptional degree of reliability.
Over four meticulously illustrated pages, Bollen goes on to provide a blueprint for a circuit that will charge a battery from a solar cell. Bollen shows that you can run something that uses one milliampere of current for “2.74 hours” in a 24 hour period.
He lets us guess what application he had in mind for this small current, but the rig could also have powered a toy torch bulb for a few seconds a day. However, the circuit is there and the date is mid-1966.
Don’t be distracted by Bollen’s talk of “satellite apps”. Its circuit is a million miles from rocket science – in fact, it’s the simplest of the bunch in this edition of a magazine that catered to everyone from novice builder to electronics professional.
Someone with barely any experience could have run a demo version of this circuit in fifteen minutes flat.
And all parts were available from specialist suppliers in London and the South East of England. The listed vendor for “Matched Selenium and Silicon Cells” is International Rectifier.
I contacted the company to find out how much a similar solar cell cost at the time Bollen wrote his article. A single cell measuring about one centimeter by two centimeters cost four dollars, until 1966. In his paper, Bollen described various combinations between one cell and four, so the most expensive part of his circuit cost between four and $16. , or about 25 to 100 dollars in today’s silver.
First solar car in the world: 1912
But what came back from International Rectifier (IR) turned out to be much more interesting than price information. It turns out the company had demonstrated the world’s first solar-powered car – a Baker Electric 1912 model – as far back as 1958. They pulled it off by making a high-efficiency solar panel – less than two meters long and just over a meter wide – from a whole bank of small solar cells. Commercial, industrial and military customers then purchased solar panels from International Rectifier.
SO WHY HAS IT TAKEN NEARLY FIFTY YEARS for solar panels to arrive in our stores? Southface, a non-profit organization based in the United States, points out that solar cell technology competed unnecessarily with the relative price decline that occurred in the fossil fuel market in the 1990s.
But Southface believes large orders of consumer solar cell units in countries like Japan could finally usher in an era where solar cell production benefits from economies of scale. I hope. In the meantime, no one knows how long it will take the consumer-driven technological revolution to solve our energy problems.
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