Though the importance of solar energy to the space program ensured that research and development would continue through the 1950s and 1960s, solar power still faced a major barrier—it was not a cost effective source of energy. This was not an issue during the Space Race, when the American and Soviet governments were willing to invest heavily in solar research and development to try and win the race to the moon. Cost was a major issue, however, in terms of developing solar power for widespread domestic use. Conventional sources of fuel (coal, oil, and natural gas) were simply much cheaper, and there was little reason for people to embrace solar technology for everyday needs. And since the main client of solar power had been the space program, there had been little stimulus for manufacturers to refine the technology for smaller-scale use.
The turning point with regard to cost came in the early 1970s when a group of American scientists approached the issue of solar energy from a fresh perspective. These scientists, based at Solar Power Corporation in New Jersey, recognized that solar energy would never have a domestic market until the cost came down dramatically. Taking that as their starting point, they set about to calculate the cost at which solar power would be commercially viable and then develop a solar cell that would not
exceed that cost. In 1973, they introduced a cell that was less efficient than the standard model of the time, but cost 80% less. The timing could not have been better for the industry because that same year saw a major world energy crisis as the price of oil spiked to unprecedented levels. This crisis acted as a major catalyst for government investment in alternative energy, including solar. Further refinements and improvements to the technology of solar cells have led to much greater efficiency converting sunlight into electricity. In 1954, a solar cell that converted 6% of sunlight into electricity was considered a major breakthrough. The efficiency of cells has improved steadily, and today a typical commercial cell converts between 16% and 19% of sunlight (as of 2013, the most efficient solar cell in the world, tested under laboratory conditions, has an efficiency of over 44%, but such cells are extremely specialized and expensive).
The photovoltaic solar energy industry is still in its infancy in Canada as a whole, and Alberta in particular. In 2012, Canada had an installed capacity of
765 MW of photovoltaic solar power, which provides only a fraction of 1% of the country’s overall energy needs (likewise, the electricity generated in Alberta by photovoltaic cells is negligible). Though a very modest number, Canada’s installed capacity is growing steadily.