Harnessing power from the sun

All this talk about an impending energy shortage in Malaysia and the drive to set up not one but two nuclear power plants has compelled me to explore in greater detail photovoltaic (PV) cells, a clean technology which has made tremendous progress over the years in terms of efficiency and affordability.

Solar PV, where the sun’s rays are converted into electricity, is the fastest growing power-generation technology in the world. Right now it still makes up just a fraction of global power-generation but demand is growing.

Bizarrely, the technology is nearly two centuries old when materials that exhibited the photoelectric effect — the absorption of light photons and the subsequent release of electro-magnetic currents, ultimately used as electricity — were discovered.

This effect was first noted by French physicist Edmund Bequerel in 1839, who discovered certain materials could produce small amounts of electric currents when exposed to light. Then in 1905, Albert Einstein described the nature of light and the photoelectric effect, for which he won a Nobel prize in physics.

The first solar battery was built by Bell Laboratories in 1954 but it was too expensive for mass adoption. A decade later, the space industry began using the technology in spacecraft. Massive spending on these space programmes and the testing that accompanied them allowed the technology to flourish. Its reliability thus established, costs began to fall and during the energy crisis in the 1970s, PV technology gained recognition as a source of power for non-space applications.

Malaysia is only just waking up to the Sun’s power in line with its goals to increase the use of renewable energy from 1% to 5.5% in electricity supply generation by 2015. That may not seem like much compared with Austria where renewable energy sources currently account for 62% of all its production or even China (15% by 2020).

But better late than never, as they say. The introduction of a new feed-in tariff system in Malaysia by the end of next year will almost certainly see mass adoption of at least some kind of PV setup in private residences in Malaysia. The government is pushing through legislation that guarantees it will be a buyer of all electricity produced by renewable sources at rates as much as five times that of power generated via the conventional gas or coal-fired grid.

These developments could not have come at a better time as some of the new PV developments have been all about driving efficiency (maximising electricity generation from the amount of sunlight, or solar power present). For example, in some of the “new” developments, PV cells will only work with a very specific light frequency/wave length while some companies use nano structures where the PV cell is made up of a microscopic forest of poles thereby offering more surface area to the light.

Some of the latest PV cells have a cylindrical shape that allows them to collect the sunlight from 360°, thus absorbing sunlight through the day while some grounded-based PV systems such as solar trackers move PV panels to follow the sun.

Then there are building-integrated PV (BIPV) materials that can be used on a building — such as the roof, facades and skylights. BIPVs are increasingly being implemented in  new buildings as the main or ancillary source of electricity. It is also possible to retrofit existing buildings.

I would like to point out, however, that the technology is not yet perfect. For instance, the nano forest approach will often be marketed as emulating nature’s trees but the fact is a tree spreads out its leaves to maximise exposure to air and to provide a maximum surface area for transpiration, not to maximise solar collection! On the subject of efficiency, experimental high efficiency solar cells already have efficiencies of over 40% and all the while, mass-production costs are rapidly falling.

But what’s most encouraging is that many of the factors driving mass adoption are already present: willing governments, a hungry private sector with investment capital that see the potential payoffs from this and most of all, customers who are hankering for such technologies, since utility bills are forcing a rethink of where their power is coming from.

Ultimately, solar energy’s hugely beneficial. For one, it is free: the 89 petawatts of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface is almost 6,000 times more than the 15 terawatts equivalent of average power consumed by humans.

It is environment-friendly, and pollution-free during use. Production end-waste and emissions are manageable using existing pollution controls — certainly, much lighter on the environment than coal-fired power plants. PV installations can also operate with little maintenance, so after the initial capital cost of building any solar power plant, operating costs are extremely low compared with existing power technologies. Same goes for a domestic installation.

And when grid-connected, solar electricity can replace some if not all of the highest cost electricity used during peak demand. This can reduce grid loading. Compared with fossil and nuclear energy sources, very little research money has been invested in the development of solar cells, so there is considerable room for improvement. Who’s to know how all this innovation will eventually look and feel like? I certainly can’t. For instance, PV cells have already been integrated into car bodies and even clothing, such as men’s shirts. iPods and entire cars can be powered by the sun.

I am just thankful I am alive and working in a day and age when such technology is exploding all around me. As a property developer, this is a godsend, since it means we can help change people’s lives for the better.

Sam Tan is executive director of Ken Holdings, the developer of an award-winning green certified project, Ken Bangsar.

This article appeared on the Property page, The Edge Financial Daily, March 11, 2011.

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