The factors driving the development of the solar industry have changed markedly over the years.
Dr Pierre Verlinden, former chief scientist at Trina Solar, says when he started studying solar cell technology in the 1970s, people were involved in the research or in the industry because they saw solar panels as a means for providing electricity to people in remote areas, such as Africa, that had no access to electricity. He says people then would talk about how solar energy was necessary because there were three billion people in the world, of which one billion had no access to electricity, largely because they were off the grid.
He says much of the technological innovation in terrestrial solar technology back then, resulted from advances in satellite technology. Satellites are powered by solar cells.
Verlinden says the driving force behind solar energy in the 1980s was the fact that some consumers were intrigued by the technology and liked the idea that they could be energy self-sufficient. “There had been the oil embargo in the 1970s, so that later shaped people’s thinking about energy independence,” he says.
But solar panels for the home was very much a niche market, because in those days it was expensive to buy solar panels. It was really a product that only wealthier households could afford, he adds.
It was only in the 1990s, when mainstream society became aware of climate change and the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that adoption of solar energy took off, says Verlinden. Greater environmental awareness, coupled with higher electricity prices from the grid, is now the driving force behind the adoption of solar energy by households. He also says the fact that solar systems have become more affordable – thanks to ‘economies of scale’ and advances in the technology and production – has also helped households to embrace solar energy.
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