The Sun Should be the Future Energy Standard
There is a house in my neighborhood whose roof is completely covered by solar panels, and is owned by someone who is apparently selling them. Just yesterday I noticed they brought up a huge new surface in their yard covered with solar panels, as if trying to tell the passerby’s (of which there are many) that the time for solar energy has come.
There are more than a few good arguments for making solar energy the primary new energy source. The sun is a fundamental source of energy in our solar system. Even fossil fuels, which still dominate as the source of energy, wouldn’t exist without the sun. Scientists believe they are produced over millions of years of decaying organic life forms which could originally exist and grow only due to the sun’s energy.
Then we have plants which couldn’t grow without the sun, and in fact act as little solar collectors themselves. Without plants animals and by extension humans wouldn’t have anything to eat. Looking at plants, in fact, we can get a glimpse of what might be the ideal solar energy ecosystem, one in which almost every surface is a solar collector.
Finally sun plays a tremendous role in the way our climate works, including the formation of winds and waves, so both wind energy and wave energy effectively trace back to the sun.
This suggests that focusing on solar energy is getting straight to the root of all energy, and since it is such an abundant source it would seem getting this right would solve our energy crisis for probably millions of years to come. In light of these facts it makes perfect sense that a Kardashev’s Scale of how advanced a civilization is defines a Type 2 civilization as one which is able to harness all of the power available from its home star. Mastering solar energy collection appears to be a fundamental element necessary for humanity to transform into a Type 2 civilization.
Solar energy technology also happens to be potentially the most practical, and the most decentralized one, which helps empower greater number of people. All we need, essentially, are surfaces able to collect the heat from the sun and transmit it to a converter that would turn it into electricity.
Advances in solar nanotechnology have already opened the doors to the possibility of simply printing solar cells on almost any surface and thus convert them into solar collectors. Meanwhile the efficiency of standard solar panels has also been advancing.
Thanks in big part to these technological advances, and investments made into solar technology, the cost of acquiring solar energy has recently reached parity and below the cost of acquiring energy from traditional sources. In other words we are at a point where installing and owning solar infrastructure shouldn’t be any more expensive than the traditional option, and might even be cheaper, and that should be a signal many have been waiting for to help commence wide spread adoption of solar energy infrastructure.
Beyond grid parity, however, I think it is safe to expect solar energy to soon become even more cost effective than traditional technologies mostly thanks to advancements in solar nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology today plays a major role in the still rapid advancement of microprocessors and computer memory, which continue to yield ever better price-performance ratios with chips that keep consuming less and less energy while producing ever greater performance. I think nanotechnology will be doing the same for solar technology, allowing for ever greater power outputs at continuously lowering costs. This is because working at the nanoscale allows us to be most precise in constructing materials and devices that do exactly what we want and none of what we don’t want, cutting out waste and inefficiency.
Because of this I think it is only a matter of time before we are able to collect close to 100% of all solar energy that hits our solar collectors. Researchers have already been able to demonstrate efficiencies of up to 90%, and at a fraction of the existing costs.
Of course, solar panels (photovoltaics) or printable solar cells aren’t the only ways of harnessing solar energy. There are such options as converting the heat from the sun into steam and then effectively running a steam engine generator, or building huge solar tower plants like the one to be built in Arizona.
All of this suggests that solar energy infrastructure in its various forms may be all we need to power humanity for millennia to come, even without other renewables like wind. Areas which get less sun could get energy transmitted from concentrated solar power plants in areas with plenty of sun whereas communities in areas with plenty of sun don’t necessarily even need to rely on major plants if each individual home or town can have their own smaller and easy to operate solar plants.
Huge desert areas could be great places for building such concentrated solar plants due to the sheer amount of sunlight and heat they receive, and if sand storms are a problem there is already a technology that promises self-cleaning solar panels to prevent sand from being a problem.
This is not to say that other forms of energy shouldn’t be pursued. Right now we need everything we can get, and the transition period won’t happen over night, so every little bit probably helps when it comes to weaning ourselves from non-renewable and increasingly expensive sources.
Nothing, however, makes me more optimistic about our ability to solve the energy crisis once and for all than solar energy tech. I just hope that bureaucracy and entrenched corporate interests with a stake in traditional sources of energy don’t stall its potential for too long.
Image by “Living Off Grid” on Flickr.