Invention to revolution: Martin Green’s optimism for solar energy in tackling the climate crisis
In 1983, Martin Green and his team invented the PERC solar cell, which today powers over 90 per cent of all solar panels globally. He went on to receive the Right Livelihood Award for his dedication and success in harnessing solar power. Today, he is amazed at the speed solar energy has been adopted and remains optimistic that technological solutions are the answer to overcoming the climate crisis.
There have been great advancements in solar energy since Green invented the PERC solar cell 40 years ago. The efficiency of solar cells has nearly doubled, the cost per watt of energy has reduced by over 90 per cent and advances in energy storage technologies make solar energy reliable even on cloudy days.
According to Green, however, the true driver of solar energy adoption has been cost.
“The reason it’s going so quickly is that solar has become so cheap,” said Green.
“They thought it was going to be extra expensive transitioning to clean energy. But now it’s clear that you’re going to be able to save money by going to clean energy as quickly as you can.”
This has certainly been the case in Australia, Green’s home country. Located on the sunbelt, nearly 31 per cent of homes have installed solar systems, the highest rate of residential solar adoption in the world.
“It’s given Australians a way to get involved with changing our energy system,” said Green.
“Most of the solar in Australia is installed on private homes, with the homeowner paying for the system, rather than the utility company paying for the generator, which was the traditional way that we’ve supplied electricity in the past.”
But, according to Green, solar energy is beneficial beyond sunny Australia. Thanks to technological advances, it has become a viable renewable energy option worldwide, especially when paired with wind power.
“The thing about solar is that it complements wind very well,” said Green.
“You tend to find that wind blows best and strongest in winter and in the evenings, when solar is at its weakest. The two together are stronger than each individually. I think that provides the rationale for the uptake of solar in high-latitude countries.”
Between its affordability, environmental benefits and synergistic relationship with other renewable energy sources, Green firmly believes that solar adoption is key to overcoming the climate crisis.
“It’s going to be important that solar has arrived on the scene with the present low costs, along with wind. It gives us some hope in addressing climate change,” said Green.
“I think technological solutions are the only way that we’re going to combat climate change because political progress has been very slow.”
In order for this to happen, however, Green admits that governments and the energy sector must abandon the status quo. For governments, this means taking greater initiative to improve renewable energy systems, including storage technology.
“In Australia, a lot of people are now installing batteries, along with their solar, so that they don’t get charged high electricity prices in the evenings when they have to buy the solar from the electricity distributors,” said Green.
“A better idea would be to have some type of local authority installing batteries on a suburban level, and having them professionally maintained and disposed of at the end of their life.”
The energy sector also needs to adjust its way of working to ensure a smooth renewable energy transition. Fortunately, according to Green, the profits from renewable energy will motivate them even if the climate crisis does not.
“It’s going to be economics that drives that transition,” said Green.
“It will become more difficult for [fossil fuel-based energy production] to be profitable in a system where solar and wind are providing the majority of the energy.”