In an effort to provide some lighter, more optimistic reading, I’ve compiled some inspiring updates on recent solar energy developments around the world. The most noteworthy advancement with respect to our project is the Brazilian government’s move to invest around $1 billion into the solar energy industry on October 31st (they were undoubtedly under pressure to respond to the valuable debate and demands that arose from our solar energy meetings…). However aside from this news, countries around the world are exhibiting greater efforts to solarize. Every innovation put into practice, every investment or policy that is made, represents important steps forward for the clean energy sector.
To start, in March 2015, two Swiss pilots will take turns piloting a single-manned, solar powered plane around the world. The first prototype of this plane, named Solar Impulse, can fly day and night without a drop of fuel! It has more than 17,000 solar cells located on its wings and weighs about as much as a family car. Solar Impulse broke 8 world records when it became the first solar powered airplane to fly through the night, between two continents, and across the United States. Last year’s journey from San Francisco to New York sparked a global initiative to engage people to advocate for greater investment in green technology. Lessons learned from the prototype will be used in the construction of Solar Impulse 2, the plane that will fly around the world next year. Swiss pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg formed Solar Impulse in 2004 with the goal to create a revolution in people’s minds about clean technology. Their goal is to demonstrate the importance and potential of technologies that are already available to us. They assert that although clean technologies exist, they will not be fully utilized or appear on the market until government establish a legal framework. Learn more about this impressive project here.
Speaking of government initiative, Brazil’s national energy regulator (ANEEL) held its first exclusive solar power auction on October 31st, with the objective of developing the solar energy industry in Brazil. This initiative is driven by the reality that Brazil is undergoing one of its worst droughts in eight decades, severely reducing output from important hydroelectric dams. Finally, the government is making an effort to diversify its energy sources. It was clear from this extremely competitive auction that developers are more than ready to jump on this opportunity. The auction awarded contracts for the construction of 31 solar parks throughout the country. There were 400 solar projects registered in total, indicating that there exists a large number of projects with the necessary conditions to enter in future auctions. Companies were awarded 20-year contracts to sell power to ANEEL for projects that must go into operation by October 2017. In Brazil’s power auctions, the government sets a ceiling price for solar power, in this case $109/MWh, and developers bid down the rate at which they are willing to sell power. Whichever company offers the lowest price wins the 20-year contract to sell electricity. The incredible outcome of the auction was that it attracted bids among the lowest unsubsidized solar prices in the world, at $87/MWh! That the clearing price fell so low means that developers feel they can drive down the costs of their projects well below today’s levels in the next 2 ¾ years (before the Oct. 2017 deadline). It also indicates that the developers are willing to accept low returns, maybe for the status of being the first solar parks in the country. Already the costs are relatively low for some of the contracted projects because they will be constructed on wind farms, where transmission lines already exist and the land does not need to be developed.
The high price of solar panels has limited the development of this industry in Brazil and is often used as an argument against its expansion. The upfront costs of solar are higher in Brazil than any other part of the world, owing to high import taxes and regulations that require a portion of the project’s equipment to be manufactured domestically. However, this financial argument disappears with the results of the auction, given that the average price of electricity from solar is now lower than that of nuclear and fossil fuels. If the price continues to plummet as projected, it will be competitive with hydroelectricity. And this doesn’t even account a monetary value for the externalities these energy sources create. The auction is a historical milestone for Brazil, not just because it marks the entrance of solar power into Brazil’s energy sector, but because it clearly illustrates a strong desire and potential among Brazilians to move the country in a cleaner direction. Legal frameworks are the only thing missing.
Moving back to the European landscape, today Holland opened the world’s first solar-paneled road. Stretching 70 meters long (230 ft), SolaRoad is a public bike path that connects two suburbs in Amsterdam. The path is built out of massive solar panel modules embedded in concrete under a layer of tempered glass. On top of the glass is a translucent, skid resistant plastic coating, durable enough to withstand the thousands of Dutch cyclists that will utilize it each day. The panels generate about 30% less energy than solar panels found on roofs because they cannot be adjusted at an angle to the changing position of the sun. Regardless, the length of the bike path is considerably larger than any rooftop installation could withstand. Each square meter of the road generates between 50-70 kWh of energy per year. This is currently enough electricity to power two houses and will be enough to power three when the road is expanded in 2016. While solar roads are extremely costly and may seem inconvenient at the moment, developers appear confident that successive projects will be profitable within a decade.
If you have any other news regarding solar energy advancements, please feel free to share!