The Power of the Sun

The Power of the Sun

When many people think of the sun they think of the large orange ball in the sky that makes the planet hot when it rises and cool when it sets. Although true, this is a very limited view. With heat comes energy, and humans rely on immense amounts of energy every day. When I think of the sun I think of a supersized power plant that is begging to be tapped for energy. Every hour, the sun delivers enough energy to earth to power the world’s population for an entire year. Furthermore, the sun provides more energy in a day and a half than the total amount of recoverable energy from oil reserves across the entire planet.

The question: Why has mankind neglected to take advantage of the energy source that not only graces the planet every day, but whose duration of remaining existence will at least match and potentially exceed that of the earth?

The answer: There are multiple factors that contribute to the lack of solar energy harvest. Below I will detail several, although this list is by no means exhaustive.

  • Currently fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) makeup approximately 86% of the United States’ yearly energy consumption. The remaining 14% comes from renewable energy sources but only 1% of the energy used in the U.S. each year comes from the sun. Fossil fuels can be traced back to the industrial revolution, thus humans have had well over 200 years to both become accustomed to its use, as well as research and invest in ways to harvest these fuels for energy. Solar energy research has only been a major topic of interest since the 1970s so it is, in fact, a relatively young field.
  • Harvesting solar energy is not particularly efficient, even in nature. There are limits to the amount of energy received from the sun that can be converted into useful energy. Even green plants only convert solar energy into plant biomass at an average of .3% conversion efficiency. The highest end man-made solar cells created thus far for solar panels are silicon single-crystal cells. However, these carry only an 18% conversion efficiency in commercially available cells. Theoretically that number could be improved to 31% but the best conversion efficiency achieved in a lab environment thus far has been 25%.
  • The mechanisms required to harvest solar energy, namely silicon single-crystal cells, are expensive. Although there are cheaper cell options available, they bring diminishing efficiency with diminishing cost. Expensive energy options are undesirable in our society and fossil fuel energy continues to persist because it is inexpensive. The short-sighted greediness that continues to drive the fossil fuel industry is unsustainable because there exists a finite amount of such fuels on the planet. In other words, not only is burning fossil fuels a detriment to the environment, but also the resource will one day run dry.
    What can be done? Simply put, solar energy research needs more funding if it is ever to emerge as a major competitor in the renewable energy business let alone the energy business as a whole. For now it is small countries and cities committed to carbon neutrality that are leading the path towards renewable energy use. For example, the city of Freiburg in Germany has committed itself to harvesting solar energy even though it is located very north of the equator and thusly, does not receive large amounts of sunlight. Many other European countries have made such commitments as well and continue to pave the way for other nations to follow suit. However, countries must first look inwardly and consciously make these commitments. The road to weaning the United States and much of the rest of the world off of fossil fuels is simpler than may have been historically thought given the advancements in research that continue to occur.
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