The Solar Age

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The age of hydrocarbon energy is inevitably nearing its end. The future of humanity lies with solar energy, which does not have a genuine alternative. For Russia, this presents a special challenge. Such is the view of Nobel Prize in Physics winner Zhores Alferov, which he shared with the audience at the International Forum on Energy Efficiency and Energy Saving ENES 2015 in Moscow.

Lately, I’ve had to often quote the words of former Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, uttered back in 2000: “The Stone Age came to an end not because we had a lack of stones, and the Oil Age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.”

The idea that Sheikh Amani tried to convey when he coined this phrase some 15 years ago is perfectly obvious today: Due to the rapid development of alternative energy technologies, demand and prices for traditional energy sources, especially oil, will keep falling, and eventually, only a few decades from now, could all but dwindle to nothing.

Indeed, since 1954, when Gerald Pearson and two employees working at Bell Telephone laboratory built the first solar panels with a coefficient of performance (COP) of six percent, the industry has taken a huge technological leap forward. That, in turn, made it possible to drastically reduce the cost of solar energy generation access to a very wide range of consumers.

When the United States launched its first national solar energy development program (the first solar batteries were designed to be used in space) because of the global energy crisis in 1974, the cost per watt of electricity generated using silicon systems was $100. Today, it is between $0.35 and $0.50. In other words, the nominal cost of electricity produced using the energy of the sun has shrunk by several hundred times, especially if taking into account the devaluation of the dollar over the years. At the same time, the efficiency of modern industrial silicon batteries has grown to 18%, whereas some experimental labs have already achieved 24%.

Therefore, today, due to fundamental changes in costs, solar power now has no practical alternatives. This also includes fusion energy, in particular. Certainly, the idea of electricity generated from controlled hydrogen fusion – which has been studied in tokamaks for the last six decades – will come to fruition in 50 or 60 years at a huge cost. The creation of a sun on Earth by detonating a hydrogen bomb has already been successfully achieved, but we do not need such a sun. On the other hand, the creation of a solar energy converter is the real path of energy development with a virtually inexhaustible energy supply.

Now is the time when solar power is truly starting to compete with traditional power generation on an economical footing. The total capacity of solar panels installed around the world in 2014 amounted to 47 gigawatt-hours (GWh), while barely 10 years ago, this figure did not exceed 1 GW. The total installed generating capacity of worldwide photovoltaic power plants using semiconductors has grown to 187 GWh, which is equivalent to the capacity of all power plants in Russia (about 200 GWh). According to forecasts, by 2020 it will increase to 500-540 GW. These are enormous changes that continue to happen before our very eyes.

Alternative profitability

Russia cannot afford to ignore this trend – we must clearly understand and internalize the words of the Saudi minister of energy. With its superior hydrocarbon energy reserves, the country must be the undisputed leader of renewable energy. To this end, we must use and futher develop the excellent scientific potential that we already have.

For instance, today, Russia still maintains a leading position in space energy. We have huge research and development capabilities in the promising field of aluminum-, gallium-, and arsenic-based multilayer semiconductor heterostructures, and they could start to really compete with silicon over time. The top efficiency that has been achieved for such systems at the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences is 46%. In mass production, if we are able to solve the challenge of combining silicon and semiconductor heterostructures, we can expect an efficiency of 30%.

Former Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, uttered back in 2000: “The Stone Age came to an end not because we had a lack of stones, and the Oil Age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.” The idea is perfectly obvious today: due to the rapid development of alternative energy technologies, demand and prices for traditional energy sources, especially oil, will keep falling, and eventually, only a few decades from now, could all but dwindle to nothing

Russia also has advanced scientific research and development in the area of silicon energy generation, thanks to which we can expect further increases of energy efficiency. However, we are still lagging behind the leading countries when it comes to solar power generated on Earth (as opposed to space solar power), since the largest photovoltaic power plant (with its 0.5 GW capacity) in our country is in Crimea and was built there before the reunification of the peninsula with Russia. Of course, new solar power stations and parks are being built, yet this is happening on a scale incommensurable not only with the leading countries of Europe or the United States, but even with individual BRICS countries, such as India and China, where governments adopted ambitious programs for the development of solar energy.

Russia cannot and should not be left behind. Today, we really must also develop solar energy based on the existing research foundation by buying solar panels and building high-capacity solar power plants, while simultaneously investing sufficiently in the development of those areas where there is good scientific potential.

We must realize that the creation of such silicon-based solar power plants, combined with wind energy, can become profitable in the very near future. At the same time, the other part of the new energy industry based on Russian research and development could start producing tangible results a considerable time later.

Let’s reiterate: Mankind does not have a real alternative to solar energy. In order to maintain its status as a great energy power in the future, Russia has to to use all of its existing unique scientific potential to take its rightful place under the sun in the new energy era.

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