The assertion that solar panels will never replace grid electricity was made at a speech I listened to last November. It was made by Clayton Christensen, a professor from the Harvard Business School, during a talk about innovation (view the speech). During his speech the Mr. Christensen gave many example about how innovation occurs. When a new company enters a market with an innovative technology they do not compete directly with the incumbent.
The example that stuck out in my mind was that of Sony and the transistor radio. The early transistor radios were inferior quality wise to the existing vacuum tube radios of the day. No one who owned a vacuum tube based radio would give it up to switch to a transistor radio. The people who bought transistor radios initially were those who had no radio. The transistor radio was better than nothing. To be successful Sony did not need to compete directly with vacuum tube radios, they had to compete against the absence of any radio.
How many people do you know that get all of their electricity from solar panels? Most people will not give up their existing electricity usage for solar panels. Where are the growth markets for solar? The growth markets are in places that do not have an electrical grid. This is the point that Mr. Christensen was making during his speech. As if on a cue, a short while later this article appeared at the New York Times. The article describes how solar panels are improving lives in Kenya.
There is at least one community in the US that chooses not to connect to the electrical grid that is also benefiting from solar panel technology. The Amish community in Holmes County, Ohio has adopted photovoltaic panels. This reduces fire hazards in their homes because they no longer have to use gas lamps.
How Can Solar Panels Benefit Us?
You may not be ready to go off grid but that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from solar panels. Energy independence doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. One of my co-workers uses a solar panel to run an aquarium for the majority of the year. In the winter he relies on grid power. There are many possibilities for decreasing dependence on the electrical grid. Perhaps you could provide lighting to an outbuilding, or heat a portion of your domestic hot water or run one appliance such as a chest freezer using solar panels. Taking on a smaller project will increase your self sufficiency and independence.
If you can think of a good use of solar technology please share it in the comments.