Solar Power, it’s not just for granola-chomping hippies anymore. Solar power generation has been increasing exponentially for decades, but as futurist Raymond Kurzweil once said, nobody notices exponential growth until it hits the “knee of the curve“. Fortunately for us and our planet, it nearly has.

Between 2000 and 2004, the increase in worldwide solar energy capacity was an annualized 60 percent. Since 2005, production of photovoltiacs has grown somewhat more slowly due to temporary shortages in refined silicon. Still, technological progress has been relentless. In 1990, each watt of solar power from an array cost $7.50. By 2005, average prices in the US were nearly halved, at $4.00. Today, the price stands at about $3.60, even with the refined silicon shortages. Mass produced cells typically have an efficiency of about 17.5%, with some at the very high end achieving 30% efficiency. Meanwhile, designs already exist to take take advantage of nano-engineering and shave the cost per watt of solar cells to a tenth of their current level.

As solar power has been getting cheaper and more refined by the year, oil costs have been going up. It still isn’t to the point at which solar power as cost efficient as traditional methods, but the trend is definitely in that direction. In some areas in which power companies pay a premium on energy sold back to them from residential customers who generate their own solar power, the adaption of this technology has been dramatic.

Last year, global solar power spending topped fifty billion dollars, with Germany and China leading the way forward. Each country spent over ten billion dollars on solar power, and saw dramatic increases in deployment, far ahead of what their governments had expected. Germany leads all countries in solar power generation:

” There are now more than 300,000 photovoltaic systems in Germany — the energy law had planned for 100,000.

Spread out across the country, they are owned by legions of homeowners, farmers and small businesses who are capitalising on the government-backed march into renewable energy.

By tapping the daylight for electricity — which power companies are obliged to buy for 20 years at more than triple market prices — they are at the vanguard of a grassroots movement in the fight against climate change. “

Planet Ark: Cloudy Germany Unlikely Hotspot for Solar Power

China is becoming both a top user and maker of the technology:

“The technological prowess of China is growing a lot faster than people in the West reckon,” said Andrew Wilkinson, co-manager of a fund at the investment bank CLSA Emerging Markets that invests in Asian clean-energy industries.

Suntech’s 3,500-strong work force at four sites in China produces photovoltaic cells, the delicate, hand-sized black silicon panels that can transform sunlight into electricity.

At a time when China’s Communist leaders are trying to turn lumbering state companies into nimble global competitors, Suntech already goes head-to-head with Japanese and European rivals in foreign markets. Shi says that all of Suntech’s technology comes from its own labs.

International Herald Tribune:
Solar power pays off for Chinese entrepreneur

Interestingly, China is also undertaking an ambitious project to spread the use of solar power in Africa. They’re both training technicians and investing in joint-ventures in undeveloped countries.

[BEIJING] Chinese scientists are to train 10,000 technicians from African and other developing countries in the use of solar energy technologies over the next five years.

Describing the plans, Xi Wenhua, director of both the Institute of Natural Energy (INE) and the China Solar Energy Information Centre, told SciDev.Net the training will include programmes on small-scale solar power generation and solar-powered heating and irrigation.

Using funding from the central and provincial governments, the INE — part of the Gansu Provincial Academy of Sciences — has established an eight-hectare training facility powered entirely by solar power. The facility, which is the largest in Asia, has trained more than 400 people from 70 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America since 1991.

Science and Development Network:
China to train developing nations in solar technologies

Raymond Kurzweil’s prediction that by 2030 we’ll be able most of our projected energy costs at that time through solar power still sounds bold. I sure wouldn’t want to bet against him, though. He’s the guy who predicted both Deep Thought’s defeat of Gary Kasparov and the mapping of the human genome 15 years before they happened.

Related Articles:
Worldwatch Institute: Solar Energy Booming in China
Japan Times: Japan cedes solar power lead to Germany; China closing gap

Disclosure: I own shares of Suntech Power (NYSE: STP), and much of this piece is based on things I learned researching the company.