With the current talks on the globally sustainable development goals like affordable, clean, reliable energy and the persistent demand for energy, the world continues to explore the alternative sources (The World Bank, 2016). The alternative here is in reference to fossil fuels, which were once the major source of energy but have over time become increasingly unpopular due to effects such the greenhouse effect and as global warming caused by the production of carbon dioxide. Moreover, due to overuse and their non-renewable nature, their depletion is always an issue. Natural resources like the sun, wind, water (hydro-power), biomass and steam from the earth or geothermal, among others are of interest in this search for sustainable, renewable clean energy. Solar energy has perhaps the highest potential as an alternative energy source in theory. The earth receives about 23000TW per year from the sun (Szabo, 2017). That is more than enough energy to sustain for more than a century with the annual consumption coming to about 16TW according to data from 2009 (Szabo, 2017).
Unfortunately, the high expectations associated with its potential have mostly not yet been met (Jones & Bouamane, 2012). This article discusses what has been done, what is currently being done and the possible future for solar energy as a major energy source.
The sun is the ultimate source of energy. In fact, most of the other energy sources, or energy producing processes in one way or another depend on it (Szabo, 2017). This energy has been used for a long time, from drying of food to the concentration of the light rays to start a fire. It has even been revered as a metaphysical source of power. Its importance, as is its nature as an energy source is limitless. People built greenhouses as far back as the 16th century using the same basis of technology in harnessing solar heat for plant growth and made their houses in such a way that they took advantage of the sun to develop a natural heating and cooling system. The first instance of harvesting solar energy was by Saussure’s hot box back in the mid-16th century (Szabo, 2017). The idea was mainly used in the heating of furnaces. More inventions to harness solar power would soon be developed, especially in the early 20th century and form the basis for today’s technology especially in focusing and collecting sun rays.
The focus moved from furnaces to water and home heating systems and soon the photovoltaic cell, the basis of the solar panel, was birthed. Advancement in technology and theories in physics enabled conversion of solar power to electricity. The basic working principle is that the sun emits energy and transfers it to the earth through electromagnetic radiation which is captured to generate this power. The depletion of fossil fuels and environmental concerns have led to further intensive research on the same. In the 1950’s and 60’s, photovoltaic cells were found to be the best and most reliable energy sources for satellites (Szabo, 2017). The potential of solar power is also a great motivation and influence on the development of this source of energy. Although there are some naysayers, milestones have been achieved in the growth of solar power. The following are various forms of proof.
The world is moving from just using solar energy for miscellaneous uses at home to massively investing in harnessing the sun to power even plants and even cities. In 2015, solar energy accounted for more than 1% of world energy production (World Energy Council, 2016). That is a lot compared to the extent to which people currently use solar energy. The photovoltaic cell is the main source of solar power. Sunlight is directly converted into energy using a semiconductor to power buildings for instance. Though research is still on-going in this field, there are various types of photovoltaic cells that have been developed. The common ones include the polycrystalline, monocrystalline and amorphous silicon solar cells. These cells are differently configured to enable them to produce energy (Zwaan, 2014). According to the Energy agency predictions, this device could produce 16% of world energy by around 2050, which is quite significant from the current 1% (International Energy Agency, 2014). If this could be managed, the economic and social aspects of human life could significantly be changed as living costs would be reduced while the quality of life would be improved.
Solar thermal energy, according to the same research could generate 11%, coming up to a total of 27% of global energy from the sun. This data translates to the prevention of six billion tonnes of emitted greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide annually by the middle of the 21st century (International Energy Agency, 2014). The solar thermal technology works by concentrating heat energy from solar radiation and either using it for generating electricity or for heating and cooling. The medium used for energy transfer is fluids like water, oil, salts, carbon dioxide among others (World Energy Council, 2016). Although PV cells without battery storage may be limited to daylight conversion of electricity, solar thermal technologies with a medium for storing thermal energy can work for 24 hours. This indicates that solar thermal might be more efficient and cheaper in the long run as it can operate in the absence of batteries.
There are also solar thermal systems of two types; low temperature and high temperature. High temperature involves point focus and line focus collection where line focus generates lower than the point focus. Some of the uses for energy in solar thermal systems include heating and cooling systems (HVAC) in buildings and various industries. Low temperature solar thermal uses flat plate collector and evacuated tube collector systems. The basis of this technology is the greenhouse effect (World Energy Council, 2016). The different method of collection means that unlike panels, this technology can be highly effective in capturing energy in different climates.
Despite the long history, there is still a long way to go in the development of this energy. There are challenges and those who do not believe that the potential of solar energy will not be realized any time soon. Some of the challenges include the fact that reception of solar energy is intermittent. Some places hardly ever receive sunlight and solar energy does not work at night. to find a way in which to turn solar energy into fuel and store it for future use (Zwaan, 2014). Some of the skeptics look at the economic viability of solar energy (Perez, Zwibel, & Hoff, 2011). Solar installations and integrations involve costs and compared with the productivity of the same considering other cons of this type of energy.
However, more research is being put into the subject. Perovskite technology, a new solar cell that is of lower cost shows great potential in the transformation of sun rays into energy and electricity than its counterpart silicon which is common in currently produced PV cells (Shwartz, 2018). These cells are made up of less costly materials and although their durability is lower than silicon, producing hybrid perovskites to improve durability and efficiency. Further studies and investigation in photovoltaic cells and other ways to generate this type of energy in a cheaper way is underway.
Solar energy is readily available, free, infinite and non-pollutant. It can potentially satisfy all the energy requirement of the entire earth. Currently, however, the world cannot only rely on solar and other renewable sources of energy exclusively for instance in electricity production. Recommended solutions include integrating various renewables into already existing energy sources that produce the bulk of energy. Of importance is increasing their capacity. Renewable sources are said to account for more than half of capacity additions (World Energy Outlook, 2011). A given electric system has to have adequacy or enough generation capacity to meet high demand occurring at peak hours. Integrating renewables enables this system adequacy to be met. Although kinks in the integration, for instance, the costs have to be worked out, the benefits outweigh the costs.
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