The energy from the sun in the form of light and heat has so much effect on the earth we live in. The sun is believed to be the earth’s power and without the sun, the earth becomes inhabitable. Plants use the sunlight for photosynthesis. Many other inhabitants of the earth also draw energy from the sun, not excluding man. The solar system has been in existence before man and as it is known of man to use the surrounding elements to his own advantage, the sun will not be spared as well. Man since time immemorial have found ways, no matter how crude, to tap energy from the sun. This energy is then used for different purposes. History has it that the energy from the sun was tapped by the humans many years ago in other to light fire. The magnifying glass is the instrument used to achieve this feat.
Also, the Romans and the Greek were said, according to history, to use energy from the sun to light touches for the religious celebration. They used mirrors to tap solar power. The Chinese were documented to use solar power for the same purpose. The concept of the sunroom in houses and buildings which is still popular today is an idea powered by tapping energy from the sun. The sunroom in a building uses huge windows to concentrate sunlight to an area in the house. The general idea behind tapping solar power in the early years revolves around the use of mirrors.
Regardless of the reasons solar power is interesting to us and what purpose we try to find in it, it is certain that solar power is useful to us. It is this usefulness that has triggered the desire to make research along this line. Today, solar power has a long list of usefulness to us with a major focus on how it can generate electricity for us. This has drawn us away from the use of mirrors and massive glass in other to concentrate the power of the sun, to the development of solar panels. The general idea behind the solar panel is to collect photons from the sunlight and then transform them into electrons to produce direct current. The direct current will then be inverted or converted into Alternate current which is the electricity we use. The materials from which the panels are made are different. However, the general idea is usually the same regardless.
New-age solar panel technology
Fifty to even just twenty years ago, the idea of going solar was much more novel and pricey. This is because of the low level of development and wide-spread manufacturing around the use of solar panels. Firstly, the challenge was how to translate from the use of mirrors which is majorly to produce heat and set a fire, to a component that will attract the solar energy and then give it out in the form of electricity. We scaled through that by the discovery of PV effect (Photovoltaic effects) which was of great influence and the first leap toward the development of a solar panel that generates electricity. From there, it was discovered that a material called selenium do generate electricity when it is been exposed to sunlight. This took us to a whole new level and served as the basis for the majority of the solar panels we have today as they are made from silicon. That was how the first challenge became solved. The use of silicon in making solar panel took effect and began to serve as a source of renewable energy about 15 years ago.
The bridge has been crossed and we now know how to tap solar energy to produce electricity. However, the first few years of this development was faced with two major challenges which are:
- The efficiency of solar panels and
- The cost of solar panels
The efficiency of solar panels:
Solar panel efficiency refers to the fragment of sunlight energy that a photovoltaic panel can convert into electricity for consumption. The first generations of solar panels produced were of very little efficiency. The rate of conversion of solar light or photons absorbed to the electricity produced was very low. They were as low as having less than 1% conversions rate. This made the possibility of using solar energy a far cry and looks almost impossible. However, the relentless effort of researchers has brought about a great improvement in the efficiency of the panels. Today we certainly have solar panels that are 30% efficient and more work is still been done to develop more panel efficiency.
Recent development claims to have gotten a 42% efficient solar panel. Before the year 2012, the previous years, 1960 to early 2010, recorded a low efficiency of solar panels. It was in 2012 that things took a good turn when efficiency increased to about 17.8%. Late 2015 also gave the good news of 22% efficiency. Early 2016, NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) and CSEM (Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology) achieved a 29.8% efficiency rate. 2017 gave an increase in efficiency to above 40% and in 2019, there has been an integration of various mechanisms into the development of solar panels that has given a great increase in the efficiency rate and research still continues. The disadvantage of this great development is that these highly efficient panels are made from expensive materials and these materials are costly.
The cost of solar panels
The first generations of solar panels were not only low in efficiency they were also very expensive. This added to the constraint of making solar power commercial. However, in addition to the increase in efficiency rate, manufacturers have improved their manufacturing process and this has made the cost of solar panels much more affordable. Manufacturers also put in some economic indices to minimize the cost of production. Today the concept of renewable energy has become wide-spread, thanks to relentless researchers and economies of scale making the technology accessible to the masses.