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Why is it so difficult to switch to solar energy?

post Thursday December 19, 2013

Tags: energy, patent, solar


When the U.S. suffered through gas shortages in the 1970’s, the demand for an alternative energy source became top priority. The solution for that problem has been found in the energy of the sun and the development and innovation in the respective area has been increasing in recent years. However, the gas prices decreased over time and the technology could not compete with cheap alternatives, so the interest in solar power decreased as well, but it never disappeared completely. The issue of climate change and environment has become a mainstream issue again recently, also a new innovation in harvesting energy from the sun through the use of photovoltaic (PV) systems resulted in an increased interest in the alternative solar energy. 

The U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that solar energy has increased dramatically in the course of a few years, they expect that the solar collection will continue to grow to roughly 14 gigawatts by the end of this year. However, that number applies for only one percent of the entire U.S. energy consumption and the solar energy will only cover four percent of consumption by the year 2040, according to the Energy Information Administration. The main cause of the relatively slow increase is that the prices for PV systems are simply too high. More innovation and development is needed to make the prices of solar energy better accessible to the public. 

In 2012, the average price to install a solar powered unit was $4.45 per watt. Considering that some households can generate over 5,000 watts, it is only logical that most people prefer the traditional forms of receiving electricity. Although the costs for running PV system are not low, much of the cost of installing a solar energy system is caused by permit fees, maintenance and more, these ‘soft’ costs can total about 60 percent of the entire PV system bill.

There are several reasons that make it difficult to switch to an alternative energy source. The current tax credit for installing solar energy systems is 30 percent, but by 2016 that credit is said to drop to about 10 percent. Furthermore, the newest technologies are often expensive. For example, the newest solar cells of gallium arsenide can convert even more electrical energy from sunlight than the current silicone ones,but these systems cost $2,000 per watt to install.

Fortunately, there are still reasons to be hopeful for the future of solar energy. In early November of this year, eight teams in the U.S. received $16 million to create more standard regulations in order to reduce the ‘soft’ costs in the so-called Energy Department’s Rooftop Solar Challenge program.These teams have already reduced associated fees by more than 10 percent and ways to cut wait times for permits by 40 percent so far.

There also have been discussions about a mineral material, perovskite, which can convert 15 percent of the energy of the sun into electricity. Experts believe that solar cells with perovskite,  can be produced for the price between 10 cents and 20 cents per watt. This innovation could be a huge breakthrough in alternative energy sources.

The number of patents related to solar cell energy are little. Even though the innovations and developments in the specific area are advancing, the costs of solar energy are still too high to compete against other resources. However, there are a few recent patents that are interesting for solar energy supporters.

The first patent is called U.S. Patent No. 8,588,830, titled Wireless Autonomous Solar-Powered Outdoor Lighting and Energy and Information Management Network. Summarized, this innovation can collect and store solar energy and process it directly to an outdoor lightning array, including streetlights. The invention relates to not only an array of outdoor lighting or other electric-powered devices, but also software for a monitoring and managing array.

Another patent application has been recently filed by Hitachi Ltd, of Japan, under the name U.S. Patent Application No. 20130311121. The invention provides a better method for assessing the power generation capability of solar cells.

At the moment there is a discussion about the patent eligibility of the software. Half of the Federal Circuit would rule all software patent claims patent ineligible, even though software patents are referenced throughout the patent laws. It would have a huge negative impact on the alternative energy world if the patent software turns out to be ineligible. The debate about the latter will be addressed in the coming months and even years, but the judges and Members of Congress have to keep in mind that an negative outcome of the discussion could be destructive for the future of alternative energy.

Source: IPWatchDog
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