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  • Mathieu Provencher

The sun is out, where are our solar panels?

Let's all take a little break and talk about something: the solar energy market... why is it not everywhere already????

First of all, a bit of context: There has been substantial progress in this market over the last few years. New material (so-called Perovskites) for the panels themselves is being developed, new batteries allow much better storing of extra energy production (for times when the sun is not sufficient), new applications are found regularly for solar-panel technology (such as ways to power cars, transparent solar panels to replace our windows, AI machines with high level of energy independence, scientific instruments that can roam our oceans autonomously for a year, drones...)

SO, back to the question, why is it not everywhere already????

Here are some of the reasons I have been able to identify:

(1) Most of these technologies have high initial costs for the consumer. As such, although it may be much cheaper to heat your house with solar energy (over the next 10 years for example), most households don't want to use their limited resources in the short-run to get the benefits much later. Humans seem to make very bad inter-temporal choices... consistently so.

(2) There is a clear lack of infrastructure for most of these solar technologies. Electric cars, for example, would require "recharging stations" for longer trips. These types of issues refer to what we call economies of networking. The more people use these technologies, the better it will be for us to use them. It is very normal for new products to take a little while before they can really take off, especially if that technology requires high infrastructure investments.

(3) Regulation and competition from other industries has indeed slowed down the progress of the solar energy market. As an example, a number of designs of solar-panel cars had to be abandoned because they did not fit the "description" of what a car is. Also, I was told that my uni-segway (a single wheel powerd by an electric engine) is banned in certain countries because it doesn't "fit" the definition of a bicycle nor does it "fit" the definition of a motorcycle.

Solar technologies can also fall victim to these technical problems, which can be increased when competing industries have strong lobby power (which is the case with the coal and oil industries). Import restrictions has also played a role in slowing down the progress and spreading of solar energy. China has recently entered in strength the solar panel industry to find itself blocked in a number of important markets (the USA and the EU). The reason was the use of subsidies to lower the price of Chinese solar panels below costs (we call this dumping). Although this is "unfair" to solar panel producers from other countries, this could have helped the solar energy market to grow much faster than it did.

Although it seems a bit slow to pick up, the technology is getting cheaper each year while social pressures to use clean technologies are increasing in many parts of the world. We are moving towards more integration of renewable energy, solar included, over time, which should eventually be part of our everyday life.

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