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Solar Power Is the Cheapest Energy—So Why Aren’t We Using It?

For decades, companies and organizations United States has avoided investing too much in renewable energy sources like wind and solar, on the grounds that they’re ultimately more expensive and less reliable than traditional forms of energy generation. But wait—according to a report in Greentech Media, solar and wind energy are now cheaper than every conventional fossil fuel source in the world, including natural gas. Levelized costs of wind are roughly $45 per MW/h, while solar PV (crystalline utility) is $49.5, reciprocating natural gas is $87, geothermal is $97, coal is $101.50, and fuel cells are $136.50.

These aren’t just for intensive infrastructural applications, either. The costs to install a solar panel on your home have fallen drastically over the past several years, to the point where they’re affordable to the average homeowner.

So, assuming these numbers are accurate, and solar and wind energy really are both the cheapest and cleanest forms of energy out there, why aren’t we integrating them into the grid and seeing them used more widely among corporations and homeowners?

The Problems

Unfortunately, cost and environmental friendliness are only two variables in a complex set of equations regarding energy generation. Adoption is lower than we might expect for at least the following reasons:

  • One of the biggest problems is energy storage. While the sun is out, solar energy may be the least costly way to generate energy, but what about the 12 hours that the sun has gone down? And what about cloudy or low-visibility days? Similarly for wind energy, what happens when the wind isn’t blowing? Energy demands remain consistent, regardless of these environmental variables, so we need some way to store the excess energy generated during peak hours. Unfortunately, batteries are incredibly expensive—and they haven’t improved much over the past several decades, despite exponentially advancing technology in other areas of our lives. Some innovators have resorted to using alternative methods of solar energy generation; for example, rather than relying on PV panels to produce a photochemical effect, some engineers are using mirrors to concentrate sunlight and generate heat, which can linger for up to 10 hours after sundown. Other suggested alternatives have been different types of batteries (such as those that rely on compressed air or thermal storage), but so far, no option has been a perfect fit for this application.
  • Grid redesign. Our existing infrastructure, aka “the grid,” can transport renewably generated electricity the same way it transports other forms of electricity. The problem is, grids are calibrated to supply a consistent load; if you hook up a solar or wind source to the existing grid, it may overload the system during peak times, resulting in damage or power failures. Accordingly, the integration of renewable energy sources requires some kind of redesign to the system—either replacing the infrastructure or more safeguards to make these power failures less likely. Since it requires both time and money, not all utility companies are willing to take the plunge.
  • Price stabilization. For many years, renewable energy has gotten drastically cheaper with each passing year. Unfortunately, those enormous declines have slowed, and while renewable energy is still getting cheaper, it’s not getting cheaper as fast as it used to. Obviously, this isn’t much of a problem, since prices have fallen enough to make renewable energy competitive with similar fuel types. But as demand for research increases and the returns for that research decrease, engineers and innovators are becoming less incentivized to make pushes in this area.
  • Consumer pressure. Per capita, Iceland produces more clean energy than any other country on the planet, with almost 100 percent of its electricity coming from renewable energy sources. This is possible, in part, due to the demands and preferences of its population; they simply wanted to make the investments and upgrades more than its contemporaries (like the United States). Granted, Iceland is a much smaller country with less infrastructure to deal with and fewer long-standing regulatory hurdles, but if consumers made a push for renewable energy in the United States, we might get set on a faster course to fully rely on wind and solar energy.

Toward a Cleaner Future

Fortunately, we are gradually shifting to rely on more renewable energy sources, even if that transition is a slow one. Lower costs are a major advantage, and one that hasn’t been ignored by investors or engineers, but there remain both practical and cultural problems that fundamentally limit what can be achieved here. Optimistically, our interest and investment in clean resources will increase to the point where the majority of our power can come from renewable resources within the next few decades—but that’s going to depend on both technological advancements and our population’s willingness to change.

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