Some of today’s renewable energy projects require 1,000 times more land than a fossil fuel power plant, to generate the same average power. The low surface power density of renewables is one of the biggest challenges confronting a transitioning to clean energy. The term is often described in the technical literature as simply “power density”, meaning how much power can be generated from an energy source (e.g., fossil fuels, nuclear, wind, solar, etc.). Power density values are in watts per unit area, this includes all the area that is committed to generate energy. For biomass, this area could include the fields of cultivated crops where the material is grown. For fossil fuels, this area could include the extraction and processing facilities as well as the power plant. Nuclear power has attractively high power density, but its costs have not been competitive with fossil fuels and there is much public policy controversy on safety and nuclear materials proliferation, that hinder nuclear power adoption. Natural gas has high power density of fossil fuels, but that is offset by its “super-potent” greenhouse effect from gas leaks during extraction and transport. The chart shows the range of power densities for different energy sources
Solar PV has the highest power density of renewables, but its power density is still less than 1/10 to 1/100 that of fossil fuel generated power. According to Vaclav Smil (“Energy and Civilization: A History”, MIT 2017)[S1] , using existing market solar technologies, traditional PV projects would require covering millions of acres of valuable land worldwide to make renewable energy significant which is impractical and unfeasible. So a new approach to solar PV is necessary.
To overcome the power density challenge, a next-generation solar PV technology must be surface-friendly, lightweight and flexible, so that it can be installed on significantly more surfaces, including on unreinforced structures and ideally using surfaces that already exist (e.g., roofs, walls, fences, driveways and cars), so that costly land-use impacts can be avoided. Besides the simple cost comparison, there are additional requirements for large-scale PV deployment: toxicity and element abundance. The materials composing such a solar PV should not pose health hazards, so they must be non-toxic. Also, the precursor materials of a globally-scalable PV must be readily available and abundant.
How can PI Energy’s PV technology contribute to making solar PV feasible at a global scale? These very challenges, that constrain current market PV technologies (traditional c-Si, CdTe, and CIGS) were a driving force to form and advance PI Energy, when we concluded that traditional PV was too limited to provide a meaningful contribution to a clean energy future. Solar materials had to be cheaper and far more practical at large scale. PI Energy’s proprietary technology is designed to be: installable on most solid surfaces, lightweight, flexible, non-toxic, and composed of earth-abundant elements. While the current $48 billion solar PV module market is impressive, we expect that having the right technology to deploy solar PV globally and across many new markets will be more impactful on the $8 trillion global energy as a whole.