Thanks to David Glenn for providing this thoughtful article on solar power.
Energy is expensive. Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, it’s just not possible to get more energy out of a system than you put in. Thus, when it comes to generating power, you’ll always be stuck with a bad investment. However, there is a bit of a work around to this problem. See, if you can get someone or something else to supply the initial energy for you, then you can reap the rewards without having to worry about the cost. And while that may not sound very honest, it is in fact the basic idea behind solar power.
See, the sun does all the work, crushing hydrogen atoms together and flinging the resultant energy out into space. All we have to do is figure out a way to harness it when it reaches earth.
Creating an Energy Harness
Of course, that’s not to say that harnessing solar energy is easy. In order for us to be able to convert it into useable electricity, humanity first had to discover the photoelectric effect. See, when sunlight hits an object, the energy that it carries has to go somewhere. Some of it is reflected, but the majority of the energy is bled off as heat. However, certain materials allow for a third option. Silicon, for example, is a semiconductor, which means that the electrons contained inside it tend to get excited and move around when exposed to direct sunlight. This is known as the photoelectric effect. These electrons generate an electrical current, which can be captured and utilized.
This was first discovered in 1876 by William Grylls Adams and Richard Day, but it wasn’t until 1953 that Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson, and Daryl Chapin developed an efficient enough solar cell to actually be able to run small electrical devices from the power it produced. Within a few years, solar power began to be heavily used by both American and Soviet space programs.
Today, solar power is viewed as one of the most promising alternate energy sources available. After all, sunlight is free and abundant all over the world, and will continue to be so until the sun burns itself out in a few billion years from now.
As such, the solar industry is booming. In 2012, the solar industry grew a whopping 76%, and now supplies the United States with 3,133 megawatts of clean energy. This is, in part, thanks to growing concern over the environmental damage caused by the processes used to generate conventional power, as well as issues regarding the lack of coal and fossil fuel renewability.
The people are becoming interested in solar power, and the industry is answering them with exciting advances. The production of new, less expensive crystalline silicon panels, as well as advances in paper-thin solar cells, is making the once expensive panel production process more and more affordable. At the same time, the solar industry has created powerhouse companies that offer rentable solar power systems, which allow consumers to save on energy costs without having to worry about installation or maintenance. The competition between these companies has increasingly heated up as private solar capabilities become more realistic.
Key players in the industry, SolarCity and Vivint have already started feuding. This type of competition will only get more intense as more companies throw their hats into the ring, which is great for the consumer base. Because of the competition between all of these corporations, we will see innovations and breakthroughs occurs at a faster pace, at a more affordable price.
What’s Around the Corner
As for what we can expect in the future, well, there has been a great deal of talk surrounding the possibility of double-sided solar panels. When strategically placed (as in such a way that allows it to capture sunlight both in the morning as well as in the afternoon, or on reflective surfaces that can pick up extra light that is being bounced back), these panels could possibly double the energy output of traditional single-sided panels. And if the United States wants to meet all of its energy requirements, it’s going to need much more solar paneling to do so. Some have discussed the possibility of replacing asphalt with durable solar panels across the country, and there is even some interest in placing a solar ring around the moon’s equator to “beam” energy back to earth.
Solar power is probably the best chance we have at creating a sustainable, efficient, and clean energy source. However, we still have a long way to go before we can all get our electricity from the sun. Still, with current advances pointing us in ever more promising directions, we may someday be able to run all of our machinery and electronics with nothing more than a stray sunbeam.
Author: David Glenn
Photo: Sunrise on foreground of savanna with fog from Shutterstock