Solar power is a promising field in alternative energy. According to Ted Sargent of the University of Toronto, the sun delivers 10,000 times more energy to the surface of the earth than the world currently consumes. This means that if a mere tenth of a percent of the earth’s surface (an area about three-quarters the size of Texas) was covered in solar cells, then humans would not need to worry about using oil or coal ever again. Or would they?
Before we go further, it is important to know how solar power is generated. The study of converting solar energy to usable energy is called photovoltaics. In most cases, solar energy is collected in bundles of absorption units called solar cells, usually constructed of silicon. These cells collect light from the visible spectrum and convert that energy directly into electricity. Solar panels can be placed anywhere, but certain areas are more effective than others at producing energy of this kind. Areas near the equator that see the most plentiful sunlight are ideal, and areas to the far north or south have limited potential at producing enough energy to be cost-effective.
Solar power has a number of hurdles to jump over before the world can expect to see widespread usage of solar energy over energy derived from fossil fuels. The first barrier that needs to be overcome is cost. Although not a new technology, solar cells are still relatively expensive to manufacture and difficult to install. This means that the average consumer will have difficulty obtaining solar cells to help generate power for their homes. Furthermore, the majority of solar cells use the element silicon, which is used extensively in microprocessors and other applications that utilize superconductivity. That means that solar cells can only be produced so long as silicon is available in plentiful quantities. Shortages can cause the price of cells to increase, which is what happened in 2005 after a long decrease in the overall price of cells. In order for companies and consumers to choose solar energy over energy derived from coal or oil, there is going to have to be a cost incentive. If the public shows interest and can put up the money for the technology, then corporations will follow suit.
The next hurdle is the nature of the cells. From the 1970s until the 2000s, solar cells came bundled in ungainly and rigid panels. This meant that a flat surface was needed and that the cells themselves were more fragile and difficult to ship and install. However, several new developments have offered hope in allowing solar cells to be more versatile. Some panels can be manufactured so that they are flexible and can roll up like a sleeping bag. This would allow the cells to occupy less space, be easier to transport and install, and be more durable under adverse conditions. The most exciting breakthrough involves a new kind of solar energy-collecting material that can be sprayed on to surfaces. Although the technology is still in preliminary phases, in one to two decades, this new type of paneling could offer worlds of possibilities. The spray-on material could coat everything from cars to personal attire and could be rigged to charge batteries and Ipods, cars and utilities. In addition, new advances allow certain cells to absorb invisible infrared light from the sun. This means that these new cells can continue to collect energy and generate power even if the sun is obscured by clouds.
A third obstacle to overcome is placement. If solar cells are to compensate for much of the output of current power plants, then large areas of concentrated cells will need to be rigged. The question of where to put these giant collections of cells arises. Should they be placed in residential areas where citizens might complain of their unsightliness, or in remote areas that could potentially harm wildlife? These are questions that need to be addressed before large-scale proliferation of solar technology takes place.
What’s to be done in the meantime? Well, the first and most important step is for politicians to put their money where their mouths are and push for improved funding of solar projects. When an infinite energy source like the sun is so omnipresent, then it would be folly to turn a blind eye to it. Most of the work on solar energy is conducted by private companies, which is a difficult gamble. Many large corporations have and will continue to buy up and render inert certain technologies that could threaten their profit interests. Therefore, more government grants need to go toward academic and university research into solar technologies in order to protect the projects’ integrity before going public. If we are to cut our dependence on fossil fuels through solar energy, then we as a nation need to be committed to seeing that through to completion. That means activism and letting politicians know that their constituents are interested in turning away from dangerous and finite fuel sources.
In all actuality, solar energy won’t completely remove our dependence on fossil fuel. But it can surely take a bite out of that dependence if given the right amount of support.