In 1973, I was a young man just out of graduate school. That was the year of the oil crisis. I remember standing in the gas lines along with everyone else wondering, how in the world did we ever get into this mess?
That’s when I came to the realisation that we had to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Personally, I was very eager to do something about it. I earned my degree in the field of microelectronics, but that was already a maturing field. My chances of making a significant impact were small. By contrast, the renewable energy field was new and exciting. I felt I could get in early and help bring about real change.
I chose photovoltaics over other forms of renewable energy because I was trained as a solid state physicist. I thought it was an area where my background was well suited. Solar cells were being used on satellites, a concept I found extremely intriguing. The challenge was to figure out how to make the cells – which were extremely expensive to produce – more cost-effective.
Now that the price of generating solar power is, in some cases, on par with the price of electricity generated from fossil fuels, I can say with confidence that all these years of hard work have paid off. PV has gone mainstream. On an annual installation basis, the global solar industry has grown tenfold in the past five years. Over the past 10 years, its grown 60-fold.
Frankly, I always knew this day would come. I also knew it would be a long-term commitment – I just didn’t know it would take quite as long as it did. The biggest lesson I’ve learned over the years is that you have to stick with it through thick and thin. Since 1975, the PV industry has been through many ups and downs. There have been periods where PV was touted as the next big thing. There have been other periods where no one seemed to care at all.
The solar industry is attracting many talented engineers and entrepreneurs. My advice to people coming into the industry is to not worry about the next down period. Don’t get discouraged because the long-term factors are still very much in favour of PV, and the industry will continue to develop and improve for many years to come.
In fact, I would say the one factor most responsible for PV’s success is the tremendously dedicated and talented people who entered the field over the last several decades. They have enabled this tremendous progress. Similarly, the continued success of PV, including the ability to further increase efficiency and drive down prices, will rest on the shoulders of the next generation of engineers and entrepreneurs who enter the industry.
Indeed, over the past several years solar has progressed so fast and so far, that many people are not even aware of the advancements. Growth rates have been in the neighborhood of 58 per cent on average year-to-year over the past five years, or 50 per cent on average year-to-year over the last 10 years. And panel prices have come down approximately 40 per cent in the past 12 months, nearly 60 per cent in the past 18 months and almost 70 per cent in the past two years. The cost of solar has dropped about 97 per cent in the last 28 years. In 1980 it was $23 per watt and in today, it’s in the range of $0.68 per watt.
The result is that a lot of people who aren’t watching the solar industry have outdated ideas about the state of the market. I’ve even come across people who have said with a straight face that it makes no sense to do solar because it takes more energy to make a panel than what the panel will ever produce. That may have been true 40 years ago, but it’s not even close today.
Most people realise that this is the century when we must unwind our dependence on fossil fuels. That means we have somewhere between 50 and 100 years to do it. This is no time to be backing away from renewables like solar. This is the time to go all in.
Dr Richard Swanson is a Fellow of IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organisation, and Co-founder and President Retired of SunPower Corporation, a leader in global solar innovation.