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30 Aug 2013

Can Solar Power be Enough?

Solar energy is gaining momentum around the world, as people look for solutions to the problems of global warming and resource depletion.  Whether it's solar water heating, domestic photovoltaic panels, or large commercial facilities, there are a number of ways to extract energy from the sun and use it to power our daily lives.  Can solar power ever be enough, however, or will we always require other solutions to meet global energy demand?

Every hour the sun provides more than enough energy to meet the needs of the planet for an entire year.  The trick is being able to capture that energy in an effective manner and store it efficiently.  As of 2013, solar technology produces less than one percent of global energy demand, although it is growing at an astonishing rate each year.  The large disparity between the total energy produced by the sun and the relatively small amount we use is enough to raise serious questions about the inefficiencies and high costs associated with solar technology.

In one example of how these problems are being overcome, scientists in Australia and Japan have been collaborating through RMT University in order to investigate the synthesis of semi-conductor inorganic nanocrystals in the production of printable solar cells.  According to Professor Tachibana, "The focus of photovoltaic industries has been to reduce material and production costs for photovoltaic panels.  As a result research into next generation solar cells has been of significant importance as it concentrates on developing novel low cost and low toxicity colloidal nanomaterials in order to meet industry requirements." 

There has also been a number of recent advances in solar thermal power production, where the sun's energy is used to boil water to drive conventional steam turbines.  According to Ausra, one of the key companies involved with this technology in the United States, "solar-thermal electricity could power 90% of the US grid, with enough left over for plug-in hybrid cars."  The solar thermal industry is a key piece in the solar power puzzle, with the storage of hot water one way to provide power continuously regardless of recent solar input. 

Germany, a country with a distinct lack of sunlight compared to Australia and New Zealand, is already forging ahead with plans to produce 35 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and 100 percent by 2050.  While they are not relying on solar technology alone to meet these targets, large photovoltaic power plants play a big part in their optimistic plan.  In contrast, the sun filled countries of the Southern Hemisphere have no such plans for a 100 percent renewable energy future.

Despite the environmental advantages, most countries are unlikely to develop large scale solar facilities until the industry is more economically viable.  According to global bank UBS, this is already taking place in Europe, where an “unsubsidised solar revolution” has begun that could eventually supply as much as 18 percent of electricity demand.  According to the bank in a research paper:  “Purely based on economics, we believe almost every family home and every commercial rooftop in Germany, Italy and Spain should be equipped with a solar system by the end of this decade."

The myth that renewable energy is unable to provide baseload power has been proved wrong multiple times.  While solar power alone will probably never be enough to meet global energy demand, it can play an important role along with other renewable baseload sources.  In a recent study published by Stanford's Mark Jacobson and UC Davis' Mark Delucchi in the journal Energy Policy, it is found plausible to produce all new energy from wind, water, and solar by 2030, and replace all pre-existing energy with renewables by 2050.