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Solar energy’s game changer | research and creative discovery | Clemson University

Solar energy’s game changer

by Brian Mullen

Is solar energy a sidetrack or a solid bet for our energy future? For Rajendra Singh, the answer seems obvious: “Solar power now is a cost-competitive option that offers financial and environmental benefits and yields new economic opportunities for many Americans,” he says.

On April 17, the White House honored Singh as a “Champion of Change” for his efforts to promote and expand solar deployment in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. He has become a national figure in the push to revamp the nation’s power supply.

In a recent publication, he projects that if the current growth of production from photovoltaic cells (PV) continues, PV electricity with storage is likely to cost $0.02 per kilowatt hour in the next eight to ten years. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the national average for electrical power was $0.1226 in March of 2014.

“Photovoltaics-generated power is cheaper than power produced by coal-fired plants when factoring the social costs of carbon,” Singh says.

Singh has devoted himself to solar energy ever since he conducted his doctoral research on solar cells in 1973, during the Arab oil embargo. Over the last forty years he has worked to advance the PV technology, which converts solar radiation into DC electricity using semiconductors.

“The vision I had in 1980 is happening only now, thirty years later,” Singh says. “The economic crisis of 2008, followed by recession or low economic growth in developed economies and high growth in emerging economies, has changed the landscape of energy business all over the world.”

Because of its “inherent advantages,” Singh says, “PV will take over wind and eventually serve as the dominant electricity-generation technology.”

Retooling the grid

To make that happen, solar will need our aging electricity infrastructure to be improved. According to the EIA, about 70 percent of electrical energy is lost in generation, transmission, and distribution, wasting energy worth nearly $500 billion a year. Much of this energy loss results from using alternate current (AC) power transmission and distribution to service direct-current (DC) loads.

Solar panels generate DC electricity, but the sprawling grids that deliver electricity to most homes and businesses carry AC electricity. In AC, the flow of electric charge periodically reverses direction. In direct current, the flow of electric charge is only in one direction.

“More than a third of the energy can be lost in AC generation, transmission, and distribution,” Singh says. “When AC electricity flows into homes and businesses, it has to be converted to DC in order to power DC devices.” Those devices include lights, air conditioners, home appliances, cell phone chargers, and more. And while the cost of generating local DC power has fallen, AC power generated by centralized facilities has remained the same.

“Globally, as the AC electricity infrastructure retires, all new electricity infrastructure should be built on DC,” Singh says. “DC-powered devices offer reduced energy loss, improved power quality, and greater lighting efficiency.”

Singh advises shifting from large grids to microgrids that get their power from solar panels and distribute it as mini-utilities would, greatly reducing waste.

“Even in weather-related catastrophes, local DC microgrids will be more reliable and resilient than existing systems,” Singh says. “We can also expect millions of new jobs to be created in this and coming decades.”

Singh says the technology is available to bring electricity to the entire world in as little as five years while lowering utility bills in the United States. To transform global electricity infrastructure, Singh is advising leaders to use PV as the source of local DC electricity in the United States and in emerging and underdeveloped economies. He also works with civic groups to bring legislation in South Carolina to foster the growth of solar-generated electricity.

“It’s a matter of integrating electrical components, finding a business model that works, and moving public policy in the right direction,” he says.

Rajendra Singh is the D. Houser Banks Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering and Science. Brian Mullen is the communications director for research.

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