Encouraging Prospects Of Solar Energy

Solar energy has been on the horizon for a while now. In developed countries, its use has yielded favorable results, but its real potential is in those developing and underdeveloped economies that are blessed with good sun-coverage. With appropriate breakthroughs in storage and transmission, and already viable price
Encouraging Prospects of Solar Energy
Source - Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASolar_land_area.png)

Solar Energy is already being used globally for many purposes, and with different versions of technology. While the current scenario does provide an indication of the broad ways in which solar energy can be harnessed and used, let us hope that a time will come, when solar energy will become a solution to all energy challenges faced by mankind. We must try hard to reach that stage.


Empowering the Past, Present & Future

Solar energy is the energy of the past and the energy of the future.

This does not mean that it is not the energy of the present. In fact, it

would be appropriate to say that for the humans, solar energy is the single most important form of energy, in the sense, that all fossil fuels only store the energy that is primarily delivered to this planet in the form of solar energy and then captured by way of photosynthesis. This captured energy during the past millions of years is used today for most human endeavors, and is fast getting exhausted, leading to high fuel prices and need to find alternative energy resources.

However, the solar energy is the only form of sustainable energy available to mankind, and the sooner we understand this, the better it will be for all of us. Solar energy is the only energy that can be used on a sustainable basis in future, and so is the energy of the future as well.

Current Use of Solar Energy

Today, solar energy is used for limited purposes, but its usage continues to expand. Its most common use in the Photo-voltaic cells, or the PV cells that are placed on the roof-tops to produce electricity, that can be consumed in that house, or connected to the local grid with necessary metering arrangements. This use has now expanded a great deal, with projects like 'the million solar roof' project in California, and is contributing to electricity consumed.

However, this still suffers from many drawbacks, most important of which is economic viability of investing in the equipment. There are other problems too. In standalone systems, electricity generated needs to be consumed instantly, or else batteries are required to store it - increasing the costs, causing dangers for the environment and reducing the energy intensity because of losses in storage.

There are of course, other ways in which solar energy is harvested. One of the more traditional uses of solar energy since a long time, and particularly popular with hospitality industry, is for heating water. Water consumes a lot of energy to heat up, and solar energy has proved to be a very effective and economic energy source for this purpose. One of the advantages in this use, is that the water to be heated, acts as a reservoir of energy, thereby eliminating the need of a battery to store solar energy harvested from the photo-voltaic cells.

Falling Price of Solar Energy Projects

Addressing these drawbacks of photo voltaic systems is the biggest challenge before solar energy can be adopted for use on the mass scale. In recent years, the economic viability has been on the rise. The cost of producing solar electricity is falling by approximately seven percent every year, and the day when it becomes cheaper than the fossil fuels is not far off. Already, bidding prices in tenders for solar projects have seen radical falls in 2017. In some cases, it has become very close to thermal power prices, thereby giving rise to the vision where all energy can be produced from solar light.

Need for New Breakthroughs to address Storage and Transmission issues

The second drawback of inconsistent supply and need for storage, is currently being addressed in two ways. The first is more efficient and cheaper batteries that store energy. The price of the batteries has also been falling, but not in the same ratio as the price of photo-voltaic cells, and has so far, a dampener on its use. Lithium batteries raise some hopes, but it is clear that we need a major breakthrough in this area, to be able

to make it really affordable for the common man. As of now, solar energy works great to complement an electric back-up system, where you already have batteries in place, and solar energy feed helps in reducing costs.

The second way in which this challenge is being addressed is by local grids. However, several challenges remain, especially when grids are required to be placed across large tracts of uninhabitable land, such as deserts, which are likely to be the greatest sources of solar energy harvesting. Hence new break through is also needed to solve these issues. This is also an issue of planning and policy preferences. For instance, one out of the box solution could be to identify uninhabited desert lands with high solar potential as industrial parks, so as to enable consumption of energy generated by large solar projects therein, without requiring long distance grids. Obviously, this needs several issues, such as availability of water, to be fixed first, but given the potential, it is a revolution waiting to happen.

Another break through, in my opinion, could be the development of solar energy based hydrogen generation from water, at a decentralized level. This could solve a lot of problems regarding use of solar energy and make it the central source of all energy needs. It is a technological challenge that requires conversion of solar energy into latent energy of hydrogen. This hydrogen can either be used in industrial production as energy, which would reverse the role of common people to producers of energy rather than consumers. This could be of particular importance to village households, that have a lot of space with good sunlight at their disposal, and with available of technology, and low cost labor, can make all the difference. It could also give a big spurt to incomes and equity, particularly in low income countries like India.

There are Reasons for Hoping the Best

In the past, most of the solar applications have been attempted on a commercial scale only in developed countries, where the solar intensity is not very high. The places where the solar radiation intensity is the highest are mostly in the third world, and if the developing economies with its cheaper human labor, and decentralized utilization of solar energy, fully get involved in solar energy based production of electricity or fuel, the costs can come significantly down. Moreover, if the decentralized production becomes viable, the vast majority of human masses will convert from consumers of energy to producers of energy, thereby finding an everlasting solution to the power riddle, and making power inexpensive simultaneously.

There are several limited applications of solar energy, which are also being tried. These include using it as a source in space, and in far off rural and forest areas, where their economic viability is derived from the comparatively high costs of extending the nearest grid to those places. There it can be used for water heating and standalone PV systems. In some developing countries, solar energy is also tried for cooking purposes, in rural areas. Lastly, it is also being attempted for energizing the small electronic equipment - an area where major developments may be seen in next few years.

To conclude, it is impossible to resist the temptation to say that an enormous revolution is already on its way in the form of solar energy harnessing. In another decade, this could change not only the manner in which we produce and consumer energy, but it may also change the energy and industrial dynamics across the globe, and may even affect international politics.

The Sun is finally arriving ....!

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