by Ken Hanson, Florida State University
There are limitless predictions you could make about what the world will look like in 20 years. But, in the field of solar energy technology, some of these predictions are pretty safe bets.
Even without any major breakthroughs, the cost of energy from solar cells will be equal to if not lower than fossil fuels within the next 5-10 years. Costs will drop just by continuing to use our current solar cell materials, scaling up production, and improving manufacturing. Any major break-through will only speed up the transition (like new materials, new processing techniques, or increased efficiencies—e.g. using singlet fission or triplet-triplet annihilation solar cells). By 2034, I’m confident that we’ll see a major shift from fossil fuels to solar energy to power our homes and ground transportation.
On a logistics level, I don’t think we’ll really notice the transition from fossil fuels to solar. There will be no noticeable disruption in our day-to-day energy consumption. We’ll still plug our appliances and phones into outlets. The energy will just be supplied by a cleaner, renewable source that will have significantly less negative impact on our health and environment.
In contrast, we will see disruption when emerging technologies intersect—like the convergence of improved solar cells, electric vehicles, self-driving cars and online ride request services (e.g. Uber). These technologies will profoundly change the way we operate and view the world.
Right now, many people are reluctant to use public transportation because they want the convenience of having a car to go wherever they want, whenever they want. But I see a future where having a readily available ride doesn’t necessarily mean owning a personal car. Instead, we’ll have solar powered parking lots full of self-driving, electric vehicles dispersed throughout every city. With a monthly subscription and a friendly app, self-driving cars will show up at our front door ready to take us wherever we ask. This technology will centralize vehicle maintenance and minimize greenhouse gas generation.
Our driving and parking landscape will completely change too. We’ll see significantly less car accidents and stop-and go traffic due to more efficient maneuvering of vehicles via computer programs. Building-adjacent parking lots will no longer be needed and we’ll be free to replace them with grass, parks, or buildings. Self-driving cars will drop us off and then, if not immediately picking up the next rider, drive to nearby parking structure, hook up to solar batteries, and refuel.
We’ll also think differently about transportation. The idea of owning vehicles as a necessity or as a status symbol will be a thing of the past. Shared commuting will become a new standard. And, at some point, there will be a conversation to decide if manually driven cars will be allowed on the road at all.
I am not sure if all of this will happen in the next 20 years. Yet, anytime I catch myself being skeptical I remind myself of the cell phone, computer, and limited Internet connection I had 20 years ago. A lot has changed since then—a relatively short period of time—and technology is not only getting better but doing so at a faster and faster rate.
In the end, whether this all happens or not, I’m confident that solar cells will impact our future. We’ll all just have to wait to see exactly how.
Ken Hanson is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University. His research group focuses on the design, synthesis and characterization of light absorbing and emitting molecules for various applications. His work is supported by the American Chemical Society, Invincea and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.