Science, Policy & A Green Recovery: Energy Transitions and Solar Energy

27 November 2020


What role can science play in contributing to the energy transition that will be needed to meet our net zero goals?

In the sixth episode of CSaP's Science and Policy Podcast, CSaP Executive Director Dr Rob Doubleday sat down with the University of Cambridge's Professor Sir Richard Friend, Director Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability, to discuss solar energy and the scientific innovations supporting the transition to net zero. Throughout the episode, we also briefly heard from two early career researchers based at the University of Cambridge, Winton scholar Jesse Allardice and the Department of Engineering's Karla Cervantes Barron, who shared findings from their work on solar panel technologies and energy systems respectively.

You can listen to the episode here:

Throughout the episode, Professor Sir Richard Friend emphasised that we are about to experience a huge re-engineering of energy, which will partially be driven by economics. We have learned that when we scale up and correctly engineer solar panels and offshore wind, they can rapidly become affordable, and have the potential to make an impact on society.

However, some of the technologies which can fuel the energy transition - such as solar panel technology - languished for many years in 'intellectual backwaters' without being given the time, resources and attention needed for their full development. Consequently, members of Sir Richard's centre have now been taking a step back, to look at energy infrastructure throughout the lifecycle of generation, storage, and energy use to ask whether it is running as well as it could be, and how we can help it to run better. Here, solar energy was cited as an example of an area where there are presently 'quite big wins' taking place, as the technology has become better and more affordable, and where there remains a lot of potential for performance enhancements which can be measured in orders of magnitude.

In the long run, as these technologies continue to improve, Sir Richard has made the case for solar energy to be a part of the UK's energy mix, while acknowledging that there are seasonal limitations due to the country's latitude. Elsewhere - in Texas, California, Spain, and India, for example, he suggests that solar energy should be very attractive as a significant energy source in the long term. More broadly, from a geopolitical perspective, he reflected that the energy transition towards renewable energy will make many nations energy rich. While there are problems of intermittency associated with renewables, if we have a large number of renewables on the grid we can engineer around these challenges. Moreover, this presents wonderful opportunities to work out what to do with surplus electricity, how we can turn it into hydrogen, chemicals, and fuels, or how we might store it in batteries.

CSaP's Science and Policy Podcast's series on Science, Policy and a Green Recovery, produced in partnership with Cambridge Zero, is available across all major podcasting platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, and Castbox.