Shining a light to a solar century
Revered by ancient cultures as a deity, the sun has a growing band of modern worshippers who believe that its abundant power can solve our dependence on fossil fuels.
From those behind developing photovoltaic technology - the means to turn the sun's energy into electricity - to governments providing alternative energy subsidies, more people are warming to the idea that solar power is a solution, not of tomorrow, but today.
In a single day the Earth's deserts receive as much energy as the world needs for the whole year. Capturing that energy is just one challenge. Making it affordable and accessible is another.
Innovation in solar cells and their application are happening apace.
Germany, a country not known for its sunny skies, is the world leader in producing solar panels and producing energy. It currently boasts 55 percent of the world's total photovoltaic capacity.
If Germany is proving that photovoltaic power can be effectively used as an alternative energy source, it is because of a supportive government. A law passed in 2000 meant that all energy companies had to purchase a portion of energy from renewable sources.
And it has helped spawn a booming market, which should make other governments sit up and take note. Solar industry analysts at Credit Lyonnais predict it to grow from $7bn in 2004 to $40bn by 2010 and the price of solar cell production to fall as their efficiency increases.
More than just solar panels
It is not just solar panels that are powering the dawn of what many advocates hope will be the solar century.
Europe's first solar thermal power station opened in April 2007 outside Seville, Spain. Over 600 mirrors are used to reflect light to a point on a 40-storey high tower, which is then concentrated to heat a liquid to a phenomenal temperature. The energy generated from it is enough to power 6,000 homes.
Even greater plans include capturing the solar potential of the world's deserts. It is a vision held by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC), a group of scientists, engineers, politicians and business people. They believe it could be a means to create a clean energy policy and sustainable future, plus provide an economic boost to an underdeveloped region.
According to Gerhard Knies, co-founder of TREC the so-called sun belt of North Africa and the Middle East could be developed to provide solar power to Europe and in exchange develop a new source of income for those countries.
"From concentrated solar power plants and transmission lines from desert regions to the populated regions of the world, we are ready to go. It could be operational in 10 to 15 years, but I'm afraid it will take longer because there are resistance to these changes."
"You cannot change the global energy system overnight. It will take 30 to 50 years to make solar energy the main source of energy, but we have to start now," Knies told CNN.
"While we can't rewrite the past, many believe that if the solar industry had received the same wide-spread backing and subsidies as nuclear power had, we would be at least 20 years further along the road to wide-spread, clean efficient power," Ian Byrne deputy director of the UK's National Energy Foundation told CNN.
Warming to off grid solutions
However some question whether solar technology is a solution for mainstream grid power or is better served as solving small-scale local problems and freeing homes from being reliant on a central power grid.
New materials are being researched that could kick-start the domestic application of solar power.
A Swiss start-up company Flisom has been developing a form of solar cell, made of a thin, ultra-light material, capable of being mass produced in large rolls rather than in sections like normal glass-based solar materials.
But currently costs of both the application of domestic solar technology and the energy they produce are still higher than from fossil fuel or nuclear sources.
Currently solar power is around three to four times more expensive compared to conventional sources.
"Solar power has more potential to be a small scale solution," said Byrne.
"It's not like wind power where you need space to site a turbine or wind farm, solar power has the great advantage that it can be integrated into housing."
What do you think? Have your say and join the debate.
This is a great source of clean, renewable energy with great potential. It has got its own challenges but I believe they can be resolved. But I agree that it has got greater immediate potential as a small scale energy solution. Longer term though, anything is possible.
It seems that the solar energy solution is one of the best to the energy crisis, but there will be no big advances if we, the citizens of the world, don't push our political leaders to take actions now!
There's an Indian saying "What we do effects the next seven generation". It would be great if people just did the right thing on principle instead of greed.
I think most people addressing solar energy are looking for absolute changes in the way the energy business if being run today. I believe the key to promoting solar energy is to engage more directly with current energy players and ensure that we are able to slowly push for adoptions. In most countries energy business is very much political and requires a lot of political will to change. And that can only happen if current energy players are given a piece of the pie.
The technology of solar power is not yet sufficiently advanced to start replacing the amount of fossil fuels we use at present. And the costs will not come down fast enough for rural people and private homes to use, the technology is too fragile and too expensive to manufacture. But I do agree that solar energy is the best solution that we currently have. I also agree that a wide national grid is not the answer, it's not practical to have thousands of square miles of solar panels in one place. The answer is in local usage, home for home, city block for block.
Everybody agrees that solar power is a renewable energy source, but is it sustainable? If more energy is required to construct the solar cells and solar power plants than can be obtained from them in their lifetime, you are still in the red. To truly evaluate the potential of solar power to replace fossil fuel (or nuclear energy) you need to consider the big, and complete, picture.
This is remarkable and a promising one. It's a cure to our major problems today. In my own opinion I believe your right it's the answer to our crises. It's very natural without abusing our environment.
I think such plans are really great and I am supportive of them. Plans like these have worked on a small scale here, how much more would it work where there is access to much more resources. It's time to save the Earth.
Solar energy is very useful especially in my country, where sun shines all year round. We have the technology but the problem will be, can the bill pass the senate that relies on the oil companies money?
I truly believe that there will come a time in the not so distant future when we realize that this change to solar energy is not just a desire, it is a necessity.
I think it is a good idea to use the sun to produce energy, which is a type of clean energy. It can solve the problem of depletion of the fossil energy, which is most important to our current society. From my point of view, one day solar technology will be wildly used in the world.
Our increasing demands for electric power and the threats we are facing like global warming and running out of fossil fuel makes us think of other ways to get such energy. Using the solar power will help in many categories, which are decreasing pollution, getting clean energy and reduce our fossil fuel dependence. But this project needs time to be established so in the meanwhile a lot of publicity should be made to show and encourage the people to use solar energy as a main source of energy.
It's been obvious to me for years that solar energy is the way to go, I've been off the grid for 20 years and it's very easy and reliable. The initial cost is large but it's basically hassle and cost free after that. Not only is it a good source of energy but it provides semi-shade perfect for agriculture or even parking lots like at waterworld in bay area. We have the responsibility to do it, so why doesn't the "big money" do something good for a change and lighten all our lives instead of polluting everything to make a profit.
Storing electricity from solar cells is not the problem; it is the cost of solar cells that prevents it from being popular. Here in the Philippines 1kwh of electricity costs about $0.23 one of the highest in the region, but the initial cost of solar cell is about $5,680 per 1,000 watts. It will be quite a while before we can recover our investment.
I've been in many places where the outside weather is wonderful but I had to spend my time inside an "intelligent" air conditioned building. I'm sure that going back to good old windows that can be opened, could save a lot of energy.
An aspect of solar energy production ignored by your article is solar hot water. It uses much simpler technology than PVs and is more efficient. In the USA a family of four can reduce their electricity use 25 percent by installing a solar domestic hot water system. Imagine how much energy could be saved if every family had a system.
A more global management and development approach is required. The immediate solution is to find a way to utilize the unused power that is completely wasted and shunted into the ground instead of being stored. Up to 30 percent of all electricity produced in some grid systems is complete wasted by our inability to store and manage our produced electricity effectively.
PhotoVoltaic (PV) solar cells are only one sort of inexhaustible energy. Others are wind, solar thermal, tide, wave biomass and wood. We should not put all are eggs in one basket and develop all of them. For heating, cooling, hot water and low temperature industrial processes, solar thermal is cheaper and more efficient. Furthermore PC cells deliver only electricity during the day. We need some electricity at night too.
Efficiency is for the moment still the most economic effort to reduce fossil fuel dependence. Passive houses need 10 times less energy to heat and efficient lighting is 5 times more efficient than Mr. Edison's invention. A lot of light is wasted and can be reduced by intelligent systems.
Before comparing the levelized cost of solar power per kilowatt, one must realize that solar isn't (yet) a technical substitute for nuclear or other thermal baseload power generators. Solar directly offsets peak power distillate/gas turbines, which are quite expensive in nature. We are quite close to reaching grid parity with solar within markets that are heavily reliant on fossil based resources for peak power generation.
You have a couple choices for the kind of energy the human species needs to be around for a couple thousand more years. Solar energy, geo-thermal, and fusion. Nuclear power is just not fun, and if you bemoan the loss of land from solar and wind farms you should be shot for not ranting about highway systems and parking lots.
I think there are some areas that still need to use natural gas, or something very similar, but I think a good majority of the world could get on just fine with solar energy (and obviously Michigan is one of those places that can't).
The next generation solution, which would have the thickness, weight and rollability of a sheet of paper, would significantly reduce costs of clean energy from solar, making them competitive with fossil or nuclear fuels.
I liked the solar idea back in 1980's but the cost is still too high. At present our electricity is 13 cents per KwH. Also the "storage" system needs lots of room as apartment space is limited.
We as citizens of this earth need to raise the awareness to other citizens so that our voice is not only heard but acted upon by governments who are too afraid of a socio-economic revolution.
A significant issue connected with utilization of solar energy, often ignored, is that of energy storage.
Solar energy will improve the economy of developing countries because the primary source of solar energy is available in most of these countries.
Investing in solar energy could mean the end of huge power companies as we know them now. These companies would only exist for supplying technical support. Every house could have its own power source.
Solar energy has been with us since the beginning of our existence and its going to be with us forever. Its advantages far outweigh any alternative source of energy, however in the coming years we will learn to further enhance, perfect and multiply the inexhaustible source of solar energy.
I think solar power is very useful, especially in a country like Madagascar. We have so many places that don't have access to electricity. This program will also help us to protect our endangered environment.
Currently the demand for the world's major source of energy which is crude oil is high. Alternative sources must be developed in order to comfortably meet the real demands of individuals in society. Solar energy poses to be this natural key. More research should be encouraged on the project worldwide.
We should rely on solar energy as it is cleaner source of energy without any pollution like nuclear or thermal power sources.
A latest report said that Greenland is melting as the globe is warming, which will lead to the rising of the sea level in the future. We must reduce the use of carbon-based fuel. Although solar energy is expensive presently, it can benefit us in the long run. Scientists should speed up innovation to widespread application of such energy.
Since it will be a challenge to harness solar power for night time use or when the sun does not shine (especially the northern U.S. states), there should be a system to switch to fuel cell power (thousands of units built and networked) supplied from natural gas deposits off the Atlantic Ocean. The entire east coast of the United States has gas deposits.
Man always falls back to the vivid reality that nature has all it takes to cater for his basic needs. Solar power will surely be of immense help to cater for our ever growing need for energy consumption.
The only way to preserve energy in the face of growing demand is to make use of the solar energy. So it is the right time to start using such renewable resources in order to prevent the scarcity of the source of energy.
There used to be a shunting (steam) engine in a works that had no fire, just a well insulated tank. It was "charged" from the main boiler at the start of each working day, and did a full day's work! This was at least 50 years ago, and it was old then! Any takers?
The present cost of getting a unit of solar energy is much more expensive than the same unit of nuclear or any other source of energy. Commerce is the backbone of the world. When the economics of solar energy are favourable, solar energy will be accepted worldwide.
I am really touched by these initiatives and they would so much apply in our situations. We need to act on this.
Solar energy would be the best source of energy in the next century. Scientists just need a little more research and innovation.
As the world struggles with environmental problems, solar energy will be a good source for clean and efficient energy. Meanwhile I hope it will be the cheapest and the most accessible for all countries around the world. If we want to save the planet we should try to have clean energy use and accelerate our activities to have a large amount of solar energy in the world.
The Kyoto protocol will not be successful, only Germany is achieving the goal but the theory of the global warming caused by human activities is a hoax, used for politically directing the industry to renewable energies. The oil and natural gas will remain the majority source of energy.
Fossil fuels and fission nuclear power are both non-sustainable energy sources. We humans need to start taking a longer view of the resources of this planet. Solar panels could easily provide for most electricity used in many countries and their long-term impact is minimal. Other "sustainable" means of tapping solar energy, such as farming, must be carefully managed, or they can have devastating effects on the environment (deforestation, runoffs). I call for governments to invest heavily in PV technology. My own house has a 5kW system installed that provides for all the power we use (averaged over a year).
This could be a good option. In some cases the technology develops faster than others and for that reason we have to make many changes in finding our sources of energy.
Even though solar energy is a good option, I wonder if Ghana and other African countries can afford to set up solar power stations.
The media promotes and sustains global warming. I watch and read in bemusement that not one of this group reports on how much they contribute to this perceived disaster. The mobs of reporters, cameras and supporting staff, must consume in a minute all the energy this island uses in a year.
Perhaps one day an organization like yours will have the courage to let us know how much energy from fossil fuels you consume in one hour. I am tired of being hassled by a cult that you encourage, when you and your industry is a main contributor to our energy dependence.
According to me solar power plants are the solution to our energy crisis. The main point is that it is an everlasting source. I agree that the investment will me more but there is a long term benefit of this. Our non renewable source will get exhausted sooner or later so we have to find proper alternative for this that will be environmental friendly. We can have nuclear power too as an alternative but the radiation is very harmful for the environment. It is our duty to properly channel whatever renewable sources are given to us in order to have a better future.
The intermittency of renewable energy sources is a problem that can be mitigated. Hydro has already solved this with dams. Wind power is looking at compressed air and also various tethered kite systems that float at altitudes where the wind is constant. I am sure that solar can deal with the intermittency issue too. As for nuclear, please solve the nuclear waste disposal problem before positioning it as a clean energy source. As well, there is no doubt that nuclear has safety problems (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island) that are all the more serious in the wake of 9/11.
Unfortunately Karl Davis (Wisconsin, USA) is quite right in his comment, below.
One has to cut back those greenhouse-gas emitters that matter most: heating up homes with poor insulation and the lack of breaking energy feedback in cars have a much higher effect than electricity production, especially if it comes from nuclear.
Sooner or later we have to leave fossil fuels. Solar energy is a very prospective choice. It is flexible and abundant. We can develop a module solar energy for every house and big power plants for factories and industries. Talking about the space, we can use our roof top and wall as an energy absorber.
One of the main problems is the manufacturing cost of solar cells. Therefore we have to press the cost. The first solution is the political will from every leader to create more demand in order to push the cost down. And the second solution is to find another way to capture and use the solar energy. Maybe we can learn from trees?
Like any new technology, capture and storage is vital. Can the energy from the sun be stored at a low cost to allow operation 24hrs a day 365 days a year in some places like Adelaide Australia where sunlight is fairly consistent throughout the year, or can solar be implemented in such a way as part of an overall energy mix that brings down the use of fossil fuels with zero cost.
The problem of storing energy over night can easily be solved by diverting half of the power supply to drive the electrolysis of water. This will produce hydrogen and oxygen which can be stored indefinitely. You can then combust it to create kinetic energy or you can convert the hydrogen and oxygen chemically into electrical energy. What is great about storing your energy in this fusion is that the hydrogen and oxygen can be used as fuel to power cars and planes for long distances at high speeds. In order for the combustion to work you will need a ceramic engine in order to deal with the high temperatures.
The big problem related to solar energy is the enormous cost and consumption of land. Solar energy is not available everywhere in the same density. First of all we have to produce systems which run efficiently on solar energy.
Sometimes advocates of solar power don't look at the environmental and cost impact of the entire process of building and operating a power plant. The construction costs, and thus the resource utilization, to build such a plant is huge compared to the power it produces. Pollution is generated when making the solar cells. Land is consumed on a large scale, taking it from competing uses by humans and animals.
The distribution grid needs to be built to handle the full power of the plant, while most of the time it is not running near full power. This means more copper must be mined per unit of electricity produced. The intermittent nature of solar power production is a big problem, especially when it means other forms of power plants must also be built.
I don't object to research, but let's not forget that projects like these move forward only because of subsidies and mandates. At this time, nuclear power is by far the cleanest electrical power production method we have.
Several years ago, I heard that solar energy would become competitive with oil when the price of oil reached $50 a barrel. Now it's at $82 dollars a barrel it should now be very competitive. I think that people are afraid to invest in solar because the price of oil is set by monopolistic practices and does not reflect the true cost of production. The price of oil can be easily reduced at anytime to less than that for the production of solar. Governments should invest heavily in solar, if for no other reason, to keep the price of oil lower.
As an engineer in chemical engineering in the future, I am interested in solar power.
Here is the dilemma: Solar is a good alternative, but is neither reliable nor can this power be widely distributed. Sunshine is a limited resource, unless you can store all the extra energy generated for night-time use.
Wind energy is more evenly available by requires resources in land area and transmission capabilities which can be easily affected by external sources (weather, natural forces). The main problem is not our choice of resource, but our penchant for over-consumption.
The short term solution: Require every manufacturer to design and produce products which meet mandatory energy guidelines and which are substantially lower than currently used. This is our only option. Grid-tied solar or wind systems will never work without this key component. All systems must employ energy storage for non-producing hours. It is feasible and only requires will-power as the technology currently exists.
For two years I installed 16 solar units that give an output of 2000 kw/year, sufficient for a family of three people. The solar panels are from Sharp, Japan and I'm fully satisfied with them. In addition I installed two solar panels (total size 4 sq.m.) for producing hot water and this is also ok. I save at least more than 60 percent of what I used to consume. On top of this I get twice the price of the cost of electrical energy from the Italian state. Of course the investment was rather expensive totalling more than 18,000 euros. I still think the cost of the solar panels is actually too expensive.
With the way knowledge and technology-based discoveries are coming up, we may get to realise this dream in no distant time! I believe governments the world over should support renewable energy sources. If solar energy was supported years ago the way nuclear energy was, we wouldn't be suffering from global warming related disasters we are seeing today the world over.
Simple logic tells me that solar energy definitely is the main way to go to solve the energy problem once and for all. The technology is already there. All we need is the political will to kick-start its development on a worldwide scale. But, unfortunately, until we keep people like George W. Bush away from the helm of our planet I think we're doomed.
I understand that if you reduce the problem it is possible that solutions comes quicker, easier and cheaper. Suppose Flisome go after a simpler solar cell with their ultra-light material that is just sufficient to boil 500 liters of water daily.
Try to imagine how and at what cost that would improve life for thousands (maybe millions) of people who live far from distribution lines - in Swiss mountains, African and Latin American hinterlands, the Russian steppes, Chinese and Maghreb deserts? How far is Flisome from a cell like that?
I believe solar power can change our source of power because I am also working towards that in my own research. I also believe there is a way solar panels can work even at night.
Are there any new investigations towards making solar energy cheaper? It's proven how expensive it is, shouldn't there exist another scientific solution to lower the actual costs?
I totally agree with the article and for countries in Africa where over 80 percent live in rural areas where grid electricity is lacking, solar power is the answer for lighting. Our governments need to promote this effort vigorously.
Solar energy is the most important energy of today and tomorrow. Switching to this form of energy is the solution to global warming, which is the biggest challenge to Planet Earth in these times. If we can switch 50 percent of households and 50 percent of vehicles to solar power by the year 2020, we will have a much cleaner environment.
It would be great to have solar technology intergraded into my and to be completely off the grid with any excess energy saved for use during storms or at night. For an emergency, it would be good to have a generator back up working off the saved energy. Home owners like me who think green, would pay the extra money to purchase a home wired in this manner. But can we ever expect to see neighborhoods wired in this fashion or will Big Brother sabotage the idea?
Solar Power could be the solution concerning energy sources requirements in everyday life. I hope the G8 group could do something about this technology to bring it into the market at a price everyone can afford.
At present, the world depends on oil and the countries producing oil are enjoying the wealth of their natural resources, while many countries economies are poor and becoming poorer everyday. Harnessing the power of water and the sun could really be the solution, but without the financial support from rich countries this will not happen.
Solar power is the future, no doubt about it. The oil lobby is too economically strong to prevent its faster development.
Solar power should be widespread, we're going to ruin our world if we don't.
In Chile we hope to see new ways to obtain cheaper energy, with preserving the environment the priority. Third World countries need more education in those areas, and solar energy I think might work better and will be easier to obtain in the case of some countries.
Alternative Energy Sources have to be always on the agenda of the Chilean government.
One way of starting is educating people who are running our countries. Before they haven't been able to manage this issue well, which is a disaster. The bottom line is we require better policies in order to accomplished all our goals to manage our energy crisis.