The Solar Probe Plus spacecraft is set to take off in 2018 (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO/Joy Ng, producer)
Solar energy provides just 3% of our power, but it’s potential is estimated to be up to 70% by 2040. We are of course facing inevitable challenges, including access and resources, but a lot of it comes down to political will and a stark behavioural change. Solar is already the world’s fastest growing energy technology, it’s a solution to the long-lasting problem of fighting climate change, and it’s staring us right in the face. “2020 was the year of positive surprises for the environment in a way that very few saw coming, it was the breakout year in sustainability and infrastructure” and it’s looking like it’s only gaining momentum.
The benefits of solar energy are plentiful; it’s abundant, clean, versatile and inexpensive. Not only that but it’s fair, it’s owned locally and it’s those locals who benefit from it directly, not the multinational organisations that have monopolised the oil industries. Solar helps economies grow, with accessible and low-costs sources or reliable energy and entrepreneurs and start-ups in developing countries can get off the ground and grow their businesses, contributing to their communities without depleting its natural resources. Solar energy provides people with the opportunity to realise their full potential.
Licorice growing around the solar panels at Elion Resources, part of a 310-megawatt power plant on the edge of the Kubuqi Desert in China. Image by George Stenmetz.
As the technology used to harness solar energy has developed, the price of solar panels has dropped dramatically. Solar energy now costs either the same or less, than energy produced by fossil fuels. Solar inevitably has its own challenges, originally installation costs were high and the efficiency of panels in seasonal countries like the UK questioned how reliable it could be, and doubt was cast over the extent that it could actually replace energy from the grid.
However, the future looks bright. Solar cells; the means through which solar energy is harvested, are in continuous development. And once installed, producing energy is then of course, free! Seasonality is also becoming less of a problem, pairing solar systems with energy storage is also starting to gain traction. The more solar you install in one location, the more impact it can have. During sunny spring days in California, there is so much solar generation relative to electricity demand, that wholesale electricity prices can go negative. There is now a worldwide race to make a more efficient solar cell as the demand for solar powered energy soars.
It is beyond dispute that renewable energy is one of the most effective tools we have in the fight against climate change, and that embracing and enhancing solar power will be central to driving down the emissions we need to protect and preserve our plant. But it’s ability to change people’s lives is also phenomenal. The Little Sun solar powered lamp has provided light and safety possible for refugees, helped students extend their study hours in areas without electricity and allowed public health workers to charge their phones in remote locations. Being off the grid, no longer means you have to go under the radar.