In Focus: Solar From Space


We shall draw solar energy from space, says association of Indian scientists

WHILE FESTIVE rabies is coursing through the veins of the world’s Christian nations, the Indian Science Congress Association has gathered to find solutions to pressing matters such as energy. The ISCA event is dedicated to progressive thought, and is attended by science junkets from all corners of India. We need more energy than our planet can produce and so the answer, says the ISCA, lies ‘out there’.

Outer space. Former ISCA President Dr Abdul Kalam says, “There is a growing possibility to harness energy from space through space-based power systems. Space-based solar power has several advantages over the traditional terrestrial-based solar plants, and India can play a pivotal role in this field.”

According to a Times of India article, the crucial technology would be nano batteries that could transmit energy back down to Earth from space. Without these batteries we would have to build one very long extension cord.

There are reasons for going to space in order to harvest sunlight which, after all, shines down on Earth too. Extraterrestrial solar light is said to be 1.4 time more potent than the earthly sunlight we get down here, and could generate power every hour of the day. Overall this would make ‘space solar’, or ‘E.T. PV’, around four times as efficient as traditional panels on Earthling rooftops.

ISCA spokesperson Dr Ramasami claims Indian scientific research is enjoying a research, after a twenty year decline between 1981 and 2001. In the past year India signed agreements of mutual interest with China over sustainable energy, as part of an annual reaffirmation of their partnership on development and urbanisation. Next year the emphasis will be on high speed rail.

And earlier this Christmas season, India confirmed a $50m solar PV and solar thermal initiative named SERIIUS (Solar Energy Research Institute for India and the United States). Four months prior to this agreement, 680 million Indians suffered a power blackout. India has ambitions, and challenges, on an epic scale.

For more information, I recommend searching the Times of India for news on ISCA, and the SERIIUS website for news on India’s agreement with the US.

About the author:

David Thomas writes about cleantech, government policy and energy efficiency for The Eco Experts. You can speak to him @theecoexperts


UK Solar Panel Quality: Higher than Expected

Several new pieces of research show the quality of solar panels in the UK is high. Higher than expected.

98% of panels “run to spec” according to Dr Alastair Buckley of the Sheffield Solar Farm Project. “They do what they say on the tin,” he says, using a popular British expression. In other words, ‘they work’. (That saying comes from an old advert for wood varnish by the way, if you’re not from the UK.)

Accurate predictions of performance + frequent standard tests = reliable, efficient PV market

The Sheffield team has released its findings on a separate website, with a map of monthly PV panel efficiency in the UK.

Another factor affecting the quality of solar panels is the increasing frequency of MCS spot checks. This increase suggests quality will continue to rise, particularly as failure means a severe fine. MCS stands for Microgeneration Certificate Scheme: the standards applying to the guys in hard hats who carry out the installation.

If installers have an installation fail its inspection they’re liable for a painful fine of at least £600, based on the cost of reinspection.

So, while there will always be a number of cowboys riding around, messing up roofs and mis-installing solar panels, the vast majority is doing a fine job. This is important if the solar movement is to continue to flourish.

What does the UK think of solar as a technology, and energy source?

Renewables are generally popular in the UK, or at least they are in principle. Fossil fuels are increasingly unpopular, and according to a YouGov report, 72% of the UK supports solar power. 55% are pro wind.

A common preference is for energy not to be controlled by private businesses who can gouge us at will. The YouGov poll shows the majority of UK citizens believe the rising cost of energy is down to the greed of energy companies, not because the natural market price has increased.

Solar power is surprisingly efficient

To justify people investing faith in a new technology solar has to prove itself. It has its deniers, like every technology, and there is no standard for measuring it against other renewables.

I mentioned Dr Buckle from the Sheffield Solar Farm a few paragraphs ago. He says solar is performing better than expected: “We would have expected more systems to be under-performing, but it seems the UK weather, with its lack of direct sunshine, actually makes installations less sensitive to orientation than might be expected.”

His reference to orientation means panels can generate power even when they are not doused in sunshine. Unless a roof is overshadowed it will generate some power on a clear day.

Using solar to produce power on a commercial scale

Good news then for Lark Energy and Hazel Capital, who are working together on the UK’s largest solar plant on an old airfield in Leicestershire. The £35m project will consist of 125,000 panels between the runways generating 35MW capacity, meaning the driving club and kite fliers who use the land will still be able to enjoy the space. Ben Glass of Hazel Capital is right when he says, “We believe larger industrial sites make great locations for solar projects going forward in the UK.”

Yes, Ben is right – China Sunergy has plans to build two 5MW solar farms in Cornwall, adding to the region’s 12 existing solar farms.

And that’s the latest solar PV news from the UK.

More general info on UK solar:

After launching the feed-in tariff in 2010 there was increasing levels of takeup, but in December 2011 the UK Government suddenly cut the tariff (for power generated and for energy sent back to the National Grid). Germany did the same recently, but not in such a hurry.

The feed-in tariff was always designed to ratchet down but this tariff cut has happened quickly thanks to the UK government totally misjudging demand and allocating far too little money to the feed-in fund. The resulting tremors have rocked the industry and are the fault of that initial government mistake. It’s unfortunately done a lot of damage, and no one has admitted any guilt.

The result hasn’t been good for the solar industry, whose margins have been boa constricted: some to death. But consumers still get a handy deal because the global drop in silicon price has made panels cheaper.

Consumers pay less and make less, meaning their returns remain the same, more or less. Spare a thought for those in the industry, which still has to pay employee wages, which haven’t dropped. As I said, many companies have filed for bankruptcy, including some of the bigger dogs in the yard.

About the author:

David Thomas writes about clean technology and solar power for The Eco Experts. You can speak to him at @theecoexperts