Among the plethora of interesting talks to go to at the Solar Canada Conference this past December, there was one in particular that stood out to me as by far the most intriguing. It was a discussion panel consisting of four panelists: Tom Rand, from the MRS Cleantech Venture Group; Tyler Hamilton, the author of “Mad Like Tesla: Underdog Inventors and Their Relentless Pursuit of Clean Energy;” John Paul Morgan, Founder, CTO, and President of Morgan Solar; and Erik Bakke, Director of Sales for Alion Energy. The topic: The Future of Solar Farms by 2030. All the panelists seemed to have very unique and differing opinions about what direction utility level solar will take.

Tom Rand was the most conservative of the panelists. He believed that utility level solar will be at the same stage of development as rooftop solar is right now, namely that it will be starting to reach cost competitiveness with the rest of the grid and thus be starting large market penetration. The cost competiveness would be reached by incremental reduction in the balance of system costs over time, as well as some small continued reduction in solar grade silicon. He predicted that utility level solar will have small scale storage systems, such as flywheels, installed to help smooth out power fluctuations that occur due to cloud cover. Finally, he stated that large-scale forms of energy storage would start to become viable in this timeframe and could possibly allow a fully renewable energy grid.

Tyler Hamilton had a mix of conservative and bold statements. He agreed with the rest of his colleagues that costs for both the solar panels and the installations would reduce incrementally over time. He also stated in this time frame that many of the utility scale solar installations being installed right now would reach the end of their effective lifetime and would need to be recycled and replaced. He believes that the installation of solar farms would be nearly fully automated at this point, which would drastically reduce the balance of system costs. He also thinks that by the year 2030 that the process for making solar grade silicon will require far less toxic chemicals than is currently required and will become much greener from cradle to grave. In a very bold prediction he stated that we would see the first orbiting solar farm installed due to the increased presence of humans in space.

John Paul Morgan was also making some of the more bold claims on the panel. He believes that technology he was developing at Morgan Solar would completely replace silicon based panels with high efficiency III-V cells, a claim the other panelists were skeptical about. He believes this due to his company’s new focusing optic, the Solar Simba, allowing for greatly reduced total cell area. He stated he thought solar energy will be the cheapest form of electricity generation on the planet by that point, but still not the most used due to solar’s dispatchability problems. He believes that solar will be ubiquitous worldwide.

Erik Bakke was predicting heavy automation of solar plant construction and operation. He believes that module fabrication, delivery, plant installation, and module cleaning will be done with extremely minimal human interaction. For example he showed a video of a ‘roomba-like’ automatic cleaning system will clean dust off the solar panels during their operation, completely removing human interaction from that aspect plant operation. He believed the increase in automation will be the factor that greatly reduces the costs associated with solar energy generation and will enable grid parity solar.

It will be greatly interesting to see what predictions, if any, of the panelists comes to fruition in the future.

Ryan Shewchuk M.A. Sc. 2nd Year Dept.of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Alberta

Ryan Shewchuk
M.A. Sc. 2nd Year
Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering,
University of Alberta