Solar energy in 20 years

Solar energy in 20 years

Renewable energy has become a topic of hot debate recently, with such high-profile governmental conferences as Kyoto and Copenhagen looking into issues of climate change and alternative energy production methods with the aim of decreasing dependence of the use of fossil fuels for energy production in lieu of developing green, clean, renewable energy sources. There appears to have been much disagreement and no little intransigence with regards to the implementation of green energy initiatives regularly at many of these international conferences, and there is much debate on which technologies will be most effective.

Many analysts are beginning to look at solar energy as the coming form of energy production for the coming decade or two, and some think that it could be the leading form of energy production over this coming time frame. Some feel that within a relatively short space of time most buildings will be constructed with energy efficient designs and materials, equipping buildings to not only conserve energy but also to produce their own energy supplies, making them in effect zero energy buildings, both cost-effective and self-sufficient.

Certainly the current research into photovoltaic cells is improving technology at a rapid rate, and buildings may well be equipped with such solar cells in the form of panels to trap the sun’s rays in order to provide for the building’s power and natural light or heating needs in the near future. Such increases in photovoltaic cells technology will also likely decrease production costs and improve practicality of usage, meaning that solar powered cars and other major solar devices that today are thought of most of the time as toys for eccentric upper-class individuals and out of the price range of most people may be dragged into the mainstream.

The cost of producing solar panels has decreased markedly between 1992 and 2005 – falling on average by over 5% per year, according to figures from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Improvements in technology are likely to result in this trend continuing, but questions remain as to whether the falling costs will be sufficient. Some believe, however, that solar power will be price-competitive with conventional forms of power production within a decade and only seek a remarkable advantage after most other conventional fuel sources are exhausted.

In support of developing and implementing long-term solar plans it has also been estimated by experts at Caltech in California that by covering only around 2% of the land surface of the US with solar panels, all of which operate at just 10% efficiency, all of the US’s power demands could be met. The figure provided compelling evidence for solar power’s march towards dominance of the global energy production market as the sun beams down sufficient energy during the course of just one hour to last the entire planet for over one year should the energy be captured, converted and stored efficiently.

Taking this hypothesis further perhaps the south-western part of the US might hold the key to this, with its vast, sun-rich desert areas – comparable in sheer size and scale to the hydro-rich northwest. Simply taking a desert area of only 10 by 15 miles with a photovoltaic array would be capable of providing over 20,000 megawatts of power, thereby being able to satisfy the electric supply requirements of the entire country. The Mojave desert is also now home to the Sierra Sun Tower, an example of a new breed of what have become known as solar power towers. Such towers exist not only in the southern states of the US but also in arid and sunny regions of Europe such as southern Spain. The technologies required in their construction are cheap, and they raise interesting possibilities for ‘specialist alternative power supply areas’, dictated by the natural speciality of specific areas to provide alternative energy. In such a way, water-rich areas can provide hydro-energy, whist desert and arid areas are a rich potential fund of solar electrical energy. Also, in rich geyser areas, the rich potential of geothermal energy may be tapped and produce an effective and efficient fund of clean and renewable energy-rich areas of speciality.

Many expert analysts are also turning their eyes to the future of renewable energy as well. The renowned futurist, inventor and engineer who predicted, among other things, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of wireless technologies such as the internet, Ray Kurzweil, goes even further when evaluating the impact that solar power could have on clean energy production in the next 20 years. In fact, Kurzweil goes as far as to state that solar power will increase in scale and influence to cater for all of the planet’s energy needs within 20 years. Mr Kurzweil states that we have 10,000 times more sunlight than necessary in order to provide more than 100% of our total energy needs, with the kind of technological advances necessary to achieve this coming into line with what will be needed. Developments in the transfer of wireless energy can only help make this even more realizable as energy production can be easily connected without any wires in just a few short years, making wide-scale wireless energy networks fuelled by solar power not only feasible but also quite likely,

Despite the fact that both solar and wind power only currently provide roughly 1% of all global energy requirements rapid technological advances – including the introduction of nano-engineering techniques and materials for the construction of solar panels and turbines – will make them not only much more efficient but also a great deal lighter and easy to install and alter once installed. The optimistic opinion of Kurzweil appears to be backed up by the fact that internet search giant, Google, recently formed Google Energy and is currently investing in precisely the kind of technological research and advances that Kurzweil peaks of. He also believes that the tipping point at which solar power will be able to compete viably with fossil fuels is drawing near.

One of the principle reasons Kurzweil believes that solar technological advances will be more rapid than any others is due to the fact that they are, in effect, ‘information technologies’, and will increase exponentially. He states that the use of solar energy is currently doubling every two years, meaning that it will multiply by one thousand times in20 years at which point our energy needs will be sated entirely.

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