Energy experts favour photovoltaics

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Experts from Imperial College London have called on the UK government to prioritise solar power over nuclear energy.

Writing in Nature Materials, the researchers argue that photovoltaics could be producing as much or more power than the nuclear industry’s current output before a new reactor could be commissioned.

The UK currently generates 12 gigawatts of electricity from nuclear power stations, around one sixth of the country's total electricity output. This is the same amount of electricity that it is predicted Germany will generate through photovoltaics by 2012 if it continues to expand its solar energy programme at its present rate.

The UK, which has a similar sunshine profile to Germany, could produce 12 gigawatts of solar electricity by 2023 if production is expanded by 40% per year, less than the world increase of 57% in 2004.

However, in contrast to other developed countries, the UK has recently halted its programme of solar panel installation on 3,500 rooftops halfway through. This compares to the completed installation of 70,000 installations in Japan and 100,000 in Germany.

Lead author Professor Keith Barnham of Imperial College London said, "The UK is clearly taking a very different decision to its industrial competitors and, I believe, a less sensible one. The sun is our largest sustainable energy source and the technology needed to tap into it is very simple. As research continues, this will become an increasingly cheap and efficient way of meeting our energy needs."

The article comes at a time when new-generation nuclear power stations feature high on the agenda of the government’s energy review. One obstacle to the development of a competitive solar energy industry in the UK, the authors argue, is a pro-nuclear bias within its scientific and government establishments.

The next generation of photovoltaic cells, dubbed quantum well cells and now under development, convert direct sunlight and can track the sun to keep light focussed on the cell. Early testing suggests that these concentrated systems could produce twice as much electricity per unit area as the conventional systems now in use.

Barnham says, "These new cells are highly efficient and are based on technologies similar to those used for the amplifiers in mobile phones, so the ability to manufacture them on a large scale is already in place. This is the kind of technology the UK should be investing in if we are serious about producing pollution-free energy."