The success of the past several years for the solar power industry has been remarkable. Prospects for the immediate future appear bright, as well.
The cost of solar power has dropped significantly in recent years. Between 1977 and 2013, Cost of Solar reports, the overall cost associated with solar power fell an amazing 99 percent.
There are several reasons for this development. There has been a dramatic decrease in the cost of solar panels. Also, new technology has greatly increased the efficiency of developing and operating solar panels for homes and business, as well as utility-scale solar panel fields.
Solar panel prices have dropped more than 75 percent since 2008. That has contributed to a dramatic increase in solar panel installations. Last year, installations reached a record 5.1 gigawatts (GW), increasing the national total to nearly 13 GW. That’s enough to power nearly 2.2 million American homes.
It is expected that solar panel installations will continue to grow. The U.S Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory predicts that wind and solar could produce 15 percent of U.S. electricity by 2020, 27 percent by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050.
The drop in solar panel prices, while significant, is not the only factor spurring the growth of the solar power industry. New technology is a significant factor as well. Advancements in technology have led to improved equipment for solar panels. Research has led to the production of materials to make solar cells more and more efficient. In fact, the most advanced cells currently in existence are capable of efficiency levels of more than 40 percent.
For example, scientists seeking to increase solar panel efficiency are taking a new look at a physics phenomenon first seen nearly 50 years ago in glowing crystals. The process is called singlet fission. It enables a single photon of light to generate two electrons instead of just one. This conversion has the potential of increasing solar cell efficiency by as much as 30 percent.
New technological capabilities already on the market can enhance efficiencies of developing utility-scale solar energy projects. Specially designed software helps streamline solar power projects through the stages of development, construction and operation.
There are several considerations and challenges associated with developing large, utility-scale solar panel fields.
Siting of the project is an important first step.
Utility-scale solar energy considerations include environmental issues, such as land disturbance; and impacts to land use, specially designated areas, impacts to soil, water and air, vegetation, and wildlife. While solar power facilities reduce the environmental impacts of combustion used in fossil-fuel power generation, there are some adverse impacts associated with utility-scale solar facilities.
For example, large solar panel fields require large areas for solar radiation collection. Such facilities can interfere with existing land uses, such as grazing, wild horse management and minerals production. Construction of these facilities requires the clearing and grading of large areas, which can result in soil compaction, alteration of drainage channels and increased erosion. There can be ecological impacts, such as adverse impacts on wildlife and interference with rainfall and drainage. Cultural and paleontological artifacts and cultural landscapes may be disturbed.
GIS mapping, which is available through some infrastructure management software, provides information on the project area that is essential to making the best choices for siting a solar panel field. GIS reveals necessary information about topography, existing infrastructure, existing utilities, land use, environmental assessments and possible routes for access roads. It also provides necessary data on proximity to the grid. Planners can review and monitor the project area through color-coded maps and layers that provide 3-D visualization.
Once the site is determined, GIS, functioning in coordination with the software, assists project planners and field agents in obtaining the necessary right-of-way agreements to clear the way for construction of the solar panel field. If the data is available online through a third-party provider, GIS can provide information on each parcel, including ownership and other title details.
Planners and field agents can manage the right-of-way acquisition process and land assets in a real-time, paperless environment that enables collaboration, efficiency and error reduction. Once the right-of-way agreements are reached, the company can manage all necessary lease and royalty payment agreements. The automation of those processes ensures significant savings to the company in terms of quicker turnarounds and greater accuracy and efficiency.
Solar panel projects oftentimes are many miles from the company’s headquarters or satellite offices. That makes mobile technology important to the project’s efficiency and overall success. Field agents can access the central Web database of organizational and project information through development, construction and operation of the project. Using their mobile devices, field agents can upload new project information, including notes and photographs. They can receive automated alerts to conduct inspections, and upload the results of those inspections quickly in the field. If new parts or equipment is needed, the order can be placed from the work site without having to wait to return to the office.
Companies have experienced 35 percent savings in their solar panel field project costs through greater efficiencies. This, in combination with the lower cost of solar panels, has made a significant difference to the bottom line for companies in the solar panel industry. It is not surprising that solar energy installations have grown dramatically during recent years.
Due to decreasing costs, advancements in technology and increased awareness of the need to convert to renewable energy sources, the solar power industry is poised for an unprecedented surge in the marketplace.
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