As the world’s supply of profitable fossil fuels dwindles down to the last drop (estimated to happen within the next 50 years), people are struggling to find an alternative fuel source. Several alternatives have been established with satisfactory results, such as wind power (windmills), hydro power, and in the form of our cars electric power. While these are all practical solutions, factors such as space, cost, and net energy gained as compared to gasoline prohibit them from truly thriving. Another energy alternative, solar power, unfortunately suffers from the same problems already listed (especially cost), however it has the highest potential use in the coming years as it’s one of the cleanest forms of energy around with a high energy output.
Solar energy comes in the form of solar panels, which are composed of photovoltaic cells. The entire system is extremely complex. Solar panels are built and pointed at the equator to achieve maximum efficiency, since they can only absorb light energy while the sun is present. The photovoltaic cells absorb sunlight and convert it to direct electricity using a method called the photoelectric effect. The photoelectric effect occurs when light shines on a metal surface and the surface emits electrons. These electrons given off are then collected and processed through semiconductors (composed of silicon), which then run through an electric current, allowing us to use the energy it produces. The entire process creates no harmful pollution or waste, which is what the planet needs considering the amount of pollution energy methods such as fossil fuels creates. However, it’s easy to see why such a complicated process is so expensive.
The biggest problem with these solar panels is the initial investment to obtain and install them. Fortunately the US government offers several tax rebates for those who choose to install solar panels on their homes, anywhere from 10% all the way to 30% of the original cost (according to EnergyStar, a major solar panel distributor). With enough use, solar panels eventually pay for themselves since most of the electricity a person will use is generated themselves, depending on how many panels the person chooses to install.
Another obvious problem solar energy has is the fact that the sun only shines during the day. If the sun doesn’t shine (at night or on cloudy days), solar panels can’t absorb light and create electricity. While this is certainly a problem, some solar power plants have become “hybrids,” meaning that during sunny days they absorb energy while during night and cloudy days they use natural gas to boil water, letting them continue to make electricity. This is also an environmentally-friendly energy alternative (although not as nice as solar energy), since natural gas burns much cleaner than gasoline does.
Since their development in the late 50’s, solar cell technology has come a long way into making it to the mainstream. Actor and staunch environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. lives in a completely “self-sufficient home powered by solar energy.” Since it is a completely pollution-free alternative energy source, several environmentalists such Begley have adopted it and see it as the energy source of the future. Solar panels have also been used on a number of satellites in space, such as the Telstar, Syncom, and the Vanguard I, which is the oldest satellite to still be orbiting around the Earth.
While solar energy is starting to look like a more permanent solution for the future’s energy problems, it is still a seldom-used technology. Only 0.04% of the world’s energy supply is created from solar panels (source: IEA), which is very little in the grand scheme. However, with further tax breaks and rebates as incentives, along with further research to develop solutions to problems such as not always having the sun exposed to produce light, solar energy can certainly become a dominate energy supplier in the years to come.