The Future Of Clean Energy – Solar To The Rescue?

We have been taking a look at the future of alternative energy. It seems like in the years leading up to 2008 the talk of the town was renewable energy, clean energy, and going green. After the financial collapse of the world economy in 2008, people seemed to begin to be more concerned with where dinner would come from. Suddenly the future of alternative energies seemed less important. Paradoxically, the American public became accustomed to higher energy prices, especially as it related to gas at the gas station, just when the country was least able to afford it. It would seem that the time for a cheap, clean fuel had come. But instead, we have found that a single alternative to oil has not arisen. Even a suitable combination of energies seems to be difficult to come by.

Previously we took a look at a much hyped alternative energy technology. Launched in 2010, the Bloom Box, by Bloom Energy, was thought by some to be the next big thing in alternative energy. Two years later, however, there is no sign the company is ready to lead the switch away from traditional fossil fuel consumption. We also looked at wind energy. This energy, too, shows promise. But wind is anything but the next big thing. Some experts suggest that, with the current trajectory of wind power production, wind will reduce oil consumption by just 4% by the year 2030. So, this brings us to the next technology. What about solar?

Solar Has Always Been With Us

Man has been using solar power since the beginning of time. Almost every plant that grows on the planet is a mini solar power conversion factory. The process by which plants grow, photosynthesis, converts sunlight into energy. But, here we are concerned with the process of converting sunlight into electrical energy. That is what is meant when we say solar power. Considering the sheer amount of sunlight shinning on the earth at every minute, it is easy to see what many believe that solar power is truly the power of the future.
According to a recent report, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India and former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Anil Kakodkar has called solar energy the energy of the future. Recent developments in the field of solar power have brought the cost of the power down, which certainly does factor into the overall equation of business and consumer acceptance. But, future solar developments will have to see the solar panels, which are used to capture solar energy for conversion into electricity, significantly change. As it stands, the solar panels are largely flat. They can be very space consuming, and depending on the panel itself, current solar panels need a serious increase in efficiency.

Solar’s Image Problem

One of the major hurdles of modern solar panels is the fact that they are not very efficient on cloudy days. And, of course the solar panels cannot produce energy at night. This is one of the major reasons that modern solar farms, locations where large numbers of solar panels are concentrated in order to generate energy, are located in locations which receive a lot of sun, such as the desert. Another important reason to locate solar farms in the desert is that they take up a lot of space, as solar panels are 2D – being long and wide. Current solar panels make almost no usage of the vertical axis for electricity production.

MIT Comes To The Rescue

One recent advance has been to change the actual shape of the solar panel. MIT professor Professor Jeffery Grossman became intrigued as he pondered how trees spread their leaves in order to capture more sunlight. He and his team then rethought the solar panel in general. Why should the solar panel be flat? What they developed was a 3D solar panel. The 3D panels are said to be far more efficient than the flat panels. Because they use an extra dimension, the vertical axis, the panels are able to generate more electricity than the flat panels, while taking up the same amount of ground space. The 3D panels also have the added benefits of being less impacted by cloudy weather. Further development of this technology may make solar power generation stations more likely to be situated closer to population centers.

The future of solar power seems to lie in two advances which must occur simultaneously. The first is the previously mentioned development of adequate 3 dimensional solar power technologies. This is going to be essential in bringing solar power stations closer to big cities, and combating the negative reputation solar power has earned as being unreliable on cloudy days. A second advance which must accompany the first is that solar photovoltaic cells, the standard mechanism for capturing solar energy, must follow the lead of CPUs – that is they must get more efficient as they become relatively cheaper.

Solar’s Uphill Climb

There have been a number of alleged breakthroughs in the manufacture of ever more efficient photovoltaic cells, at a decreasing price point. But, the fact is that at the current moment, there just does not seem to be the economic push to get solar integrated into the nation’s power grid in a major way. It seems that with alternative energy there is always something holding it back. For example, a recent announcement that California will be building the world’s largest solar farm, comes in the wake of a huge debacle suffered by the President after the folding of solar panel maker Solyndra. That bankruptcy came after the company had received up to a half a billion dollars in government assistance.

Alternative energy is trying to shake the title “alternative,” and just become energy. But, the mountain is steep. It seems that it will truly take a monumental effort to overcome the world’s addiction to oil, and, as of now, a viable alternative has not been found. Though solar seems it will play a role in the future, it will not likely be a true oil replacement for some time, if ever.

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