Solar energy is technology that harnesses the sun’s energy to produce electricity. Currently, solar accounts for 1.3% of the world’s power generation, a share which has more than doubled in the past three years. It is currently the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in the world.
Solar panels harness that energy using a collection of electrical devices called solar cells. Solar cells contain a kind of material (called photovoltaic materials) that can convert sunlight into electricity. The more light that hits a cell, the more electricity it produces. This electricity can be used, stored, or added to the electrical grid.
In Canada, just 0.5% of the overall electricity capacity comes from solar energy installations. However, the impact of solar is growing fast. Canada generated 2000 megawatts of solar energy in 2015, up from just 500mw in 2010. Canada ranks 10th in the world for solar installations, with 98% of its solar power generation located in Ontario.
In the past, solar was considered an expensive energy source. But thanks to improved technology, the cost of producing solar energy has dropped dramatically in recent years. The price per watt declined from $7.50 to just $1.25 in the past ten years, and the U.S. Department of Energy predicts it will fall to $1.00 per watt by 2020.
Solar technology has both residential and commercial applications. Large-scale solar installations of two or more acres, called solar farms, can generate enough electricity to power hundreds of homes at once. As the price of solar declines, more people and business are adopting solar technology in small-scale rooftop installations as well.
There are a broad range of options to invest in solar energy, including onsite systems, large-scale offsite systems, and long-term renewable energy contracts. In 2015, Apple signed a 25-year contract to buy power directly from a solar farm in California. CEO Tim Cook believes it will have very significant savings for the company.
While solar technology has advanced considerably in recent years, it does have limitations. Solar cells cannot generate electricity at night, and their effectiveness depends on the weather. That makes it difficult to rely on solar energy alone.
Solar is most effective in conjunction with other alternative energy sources, like wind and hydro technology. Remote communities in Canada’s north are combining solar energy with other renewable sources, like wind, to replace diesel fuel and save millions of dollars in energy costs.