Every second of every day light and energy depart the sun and around 8 minutes and 20 seconds later hit the Earth and with it bring an energy source that dwarfs all other sources readily available to us. A total of 173,000 terawatts (trillions of watts) shines down upon the Earth continuously and in that moment we receive 10,000 times the world’s total energy use.
It’s enough to meet all of our energy needs, globally, until the sun dies out, which, give or take a year, is billions of years from now.
And according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions solar generation (including distributed) is projected to climb from 11 percent of total U.S. renewable generation in 2017 to 48 percent by 2050, making it the fastest-growing electricity source, but not quite yet the biggest.
Why aren’t we using the sun to power all of our energy needs?
A big part of the problem lies in requiring the necessary technical solutions to fairly simple problems.
Firstly solar power installations have to be large enough to capture a level of meaningful energy to make a significant contribution to our global energy mix. This presents a big engineering challenge. But, in the context of the existential crisis of climate change, it should be possible. It has been proposed that solar systems covering roughly 10 percent of the world’s deserts or about 1.5% of the planet’s total land surface area would generate approximately 15 terawatts of energy, which would provide enough to meet the requirements of our energy hungry global civilisation over the next 50 years.
Equally existing buildings could be adapted to allow for the installation of solar panels across billions of buildings in cities and towns across the world which would provide a substantial level of energy for our use. Unfortunately cost, bureaucratic barriers, planning permission and public awareness still need to be much improved and streamlined in order to open up access to solar.
Key facts and benefits of solar power
(how can it be used to cut our carbon footprint, reduce our emissions and help us to live cleaner, greener lives?)
1Solar cells work by capturing certain wavelengths across the spectrum of solar radiation which in turn is converted to electricity that we can use
2Solar energy is the most abundant form of energy on the Earth
It powers the natural processes for every living thing on the planet and ensures all plantlife can grow to support other natural processes for life, such as oxygen production.
3Solar energy takes approximately 8 minutes and 20 seconds to reach Earth
4Solar energy is way cheaper than fossil fuels
According to the World Economic Forum ‘we have reached a tipping point where clean energy is now a cost-effective way to meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals to reduce emissions and keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.’ Let’s just think about this for a second; when you mine coal or oil you have to locate it, dig for it, build a well, pump it out, transport it, pipe it, refine it, sell it and burn it in order to produce energy. When you want to capture solar power you build your plant and switch it on. It doesn’t take a scientist to realise that solar would inevitably blow fossil fuels out of the water one day.
5Solar panels known as photovoltaic cells are made of semi-conductors that work to convert sunlight into energy
Light streams into the solar cells where electrons are separated from their atoms. This process creates energy.
6‘Solar Efficiency’ is the term which indicates how much of the energy, or sunlight received is converted into electricity
Most solar panels on people’s homes convert about 20% of the energy they receive into energy, but this can go up to 40% on more advanced specialist installations. The solar efficiency rate is expected to improve as technology advances over time and, as of 2020 there are multiple manufacturers who offer solar panels above the 20% efficiency range.
7Solar power plants are long lasting
Within a minimum requirement, formalised via a power purchase agreement with a customer, solar power plants are built to last. These agreements are usually made for at least 20 years but solar panels are built to last for 40-50 years and it is expected that they could last much longer. Additionally once the solar power plant infrastructure is in place a modular approach to construction can ensure that solar panels can be replaced with newer, more efficient panels as the technology improves over time, thus reducing costs even more.
8Solar energy exists both as ultraviolet light and radiant energy
These distinct forms of energy can be captured via technology such as photo-voltaic solar panels, solar thermal heating panels, solar thermal electricity or artificial photosynthesis which is a term used used to refer to any scheme for capturing and storing the energy from sunlight in the chemical bonds of a fuel (a solar fuel). Building can also be built in a way using architectural insight to enable solar heating and efficiency.
9China makes a lot of solar panels
Since 2013 China has been leading the way in both photo-voltaics and solar thermal energy and in 2015, China surpassed Germany in becoming the world’s largest producer of photo-voltaic power. Wikepedia reports, that despite these huge strides in the Chinese development of solar power ‘the contribution to the total electric energy production remains modest as the average capacity factor of solar power plants is relatively low at 17% on average. Of the 6,412 TWh electricity produced in China in 2017, 118.2 TWh was generated by solar power, equivalent to 1.84% of total electricity production.’ There’s clearly a lot of capacity left to go.
10Solar energy is completely free and renewable, for as long as the sun lasts
Once solar panels are installed and minimal maintenance costs accounted for solar power is as free as the air you breath. Unlike fossil fuels you do not need to pay for the energy you use.
11Solar reduces your carbon footprint
Because you are not paying to emit CO2 your carbon footprint will be massively reduced and all of your energy will be met by environmentally friendly, renewable power. In fact, the UK Government estimates that the average UK household produces3,360kWh, which equates to 2.4 metric tons of carbon being released into the atmosphere. By switching to solar would allow you to become completely renewable and would even be the equivalent of planting 9 trees per year.
12Solar panels require little to no maintenance
It is essential that they are kept clean in order to maximise solar generation and a tiled slanting roof will require even less cleaning as rainwater will help to remove dust and dirt.
13There is a long history of solar powered innovation
Way back in 1447 Leonardo Da Vinci predicted that solar power would be used to power industry and he even designed a system to heat water using solar power for renaissance Florence.
14Solar works in space
The space industry has been using the sun to power its satellites, space-crafts and our very own International Space Station since the 1960s. According to wikipedia the Daddy of spacecraft solar power was Dr. Hans Ziegler who was influential in deploying solar panels on the first ever spacecraft, the the Vanguard 1 satellite, launched by the US in 1958. Wikipedia also highlighted:
The International Space Station also uses solar arrays to power everything on the station. The 262,400 solar cells cover around 27,000 square feet (2,500 m2) of space. There are four sets of solar arrays that power the station and the fourth set of arrays were installed in March 2009. 240 kilowatts of electricity can be generated from these solar arrays. That comes to 120 kilowatts average system power, including 50% ISS time in Earth’s shadow.
15Direct sunlight is not required.
Solar panels can work on cloudy days and in the winter; though direct sunlight improves efficiency and power generation.
16Solar energy can be used to provide power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 265 days per year
Thanks to huge advances in energy storage and the development of massive battery packs, such as the Powerwall from Tesla, which is the largest capacity domestic powerwall available today. At a huge 13.5 kWh the average powerwall stores more than enough energy to power the needs of an average home (which uses about 7kWh per day).
17Solar power can make you money
Solar power generation will, one day, if not already, be able to make you money. With our energy grid set to undergo transformational changes surplus solar power, generated by those who do not need to use all of it, will a saleable commodity. Intelligent batteries, such as the powerwall, will enable owners to store solar power building it up during off-peak hours and then allowing them to sell it back to the grid when demand is high.
18In one hour alone the sun bathes in more solar energy than the whole human world could possibly use up in a year
That’s around 120,000 terawatts per day with the whole of human civilisation using about 15 terawatts in a complete year.
19Solar energy is noise free. Peace.
Plants and microorganisms have been making use of solar energy, via the process of photosynthesis, since life began.
20Solar can enable an off-grid lifestyle
An off–grid lifestyle is a form of independet living in which a person has no external reliance on public utilities or services. Being “off-the-grid” generally refers to a remote existence, though technically you can be off-grid anywhere, in a location where normal utilities cannot be accessed. Because of their ease of installation, modular design and portability solar photovoltaic panels are a popular solution for those seeking an off-grid lifestyle.
21Portable solar installations can be used to power everything from consumer electronics to road signs and street lights
22Solar panels have no moving parts
And are therefore very safe for the existence of animals and other wildlife. Their impact on the surrounding environment is low, except for the space they occupy which needs to be maintained.
23Solar is evolving!
The solar energy generation sector is constantly advancing with companies such as Sintine Solar developing jaw-dropping inventions such as a solar skin in order to make solar integration into existing buildings completely seamless. They describe this innovation on their site: “Designed by MIT engineers, SolarSkin is an aesthetic overlay that transforms the look of any solar panel. It can make the panel blend in with a homeowner’s roof – no matter what color, pattern, or style. Or it can convert it into a branding asset for businesses, an advertising medium for marketers, signage for street furniture, a canvas for an artist… the possibilities are endless.“
24Floating solar farms are set to become a thing
It’s because placing photovoltaic panels on reservoirs and other water bodies have numerous benefits. “Floatovoltaics” as they are known offer greater efficiency, of up to 10%, than their land-based counterparts and that’s to do with the cooling effect of the water, which keeps solar panels operating smoothly. The cost is considerably less than land-based alternatives and the water can help to keep the solar panels clean. The effects on natural species and processes are not completely understood, but huge panel arrays prevent fishing and the growth of noxious algae, which can clog up natural waterways.
25Solar clothing may be coming to a store near you
You could soon wear solar fabric if one company is able to bring it’s products to market. Pvilion, based out of Brooklyn, New York City, is developing products that range from Tommy Hilfiger solar powered clothing to handbags and beautiful awnings, canopies and frame tents. The basis for this remarkable approach to solar is, as stated by Pvilion to design and manufacture “flexible PV solar structures and products. Ranging from solar powered charging stations to solar powered curtains, building facades and clothing, its expertise is in the integration of all steps along the process.”
26Solar energy can be used to purify water
This method of water purification allows water to be purified by solar energy. Ultra violet light can be used to destroy the formation of DNA within microorganisms, stopping their reproduction and making them harmless.
27Solar will be unbeatable on cost
Solar power will soon be unbeatable in comparison to fossil fuels due a rapid reduction in the cost of installation from 2010-2018. The World Economic Forum paints a sunlight future for solar predicting a continuous drop in prices. And it’s believed China has a big role to play in the rapid transformation to solar around the world. As China heaves it’s manufacturing might behind the rise of solar, this renewable form of energy is set to become preeminent in the rise to power.