As long as there is a sun there can be life on earth. Humankind is less certain; we are more likely to suck the planet dry and perish than we are to outlast the sun. Even so, if we live to see the sun extinguish it will only be a matter of minutes until we succumbed to the darkness and cold or meet an explosive supernova’s end. And that is the best-case scenario.
Alternately, we can turn the planet into a giant greenhouse and cook in our own carbon emissions. Without drastic action this could happen within the next century, considering overpopulation, natural disasters, or a water shortage do not wipe us out first.
Meanwhile, the sun will keep blissfully burning for another 2.8 billion years.
Solar energy offers the only infinitely sustainable energy source on earth. There are others, like wind, water, and tidal ranges, but no other energy source is so untouched by mankind yet so essential. Every hour, enough solar energy to power the planet for a year hits the earth’s surface, so why do we only use it for .1 percent of our global energy needs?
There are two kinds of solar energies: solar electric and solar thermal. Solar electricity, known also as photovoltaic or PV systems, are the solar panels that turn sunlight into usable electricity. Solar panels are actually less efficient than their much simpler cousins, solar thermal energy, which use direct heat from the sun to heat homes and water supplies.
According to a report by the Washington Post, Americans have the potential to produce over one hundred times more energy via solar panels than the U.S. currently consumes. In the report, The Environment America Research and Policy Center said every state has the potential to increase their solar energy output. It cited mid and southwestern states like Arizona, Montana, and Oklahoma as states that can increase their solar output over 100 times the current usage.
In an ideal scenario, the U.S. could exceed their energy needs by installing more solar panels on residential and industrial roofs and Congressional action. Solar investment tax credit, net energy metering, and renewable portfolio standards are all steps Congress could take to spur solar panel investment.
Germany is the world leader in solar energy, boasting 26 percent of the world’s PV solar capacity. It has spurred talks about the coming “solar revolution”, yet a high latitude and cloudy climate seem to have stagnated Germany’s solar growth in recent years. Still, Germany has a 20-year-long subsidy plan that funds the installation of 2.5 to 3.5 GW of solar panels per year that has made it the global leader in solar energy.
Other leading countries are China, Italy, and Japan, with the U.S. taking fifth place. America’s prairies and deserts see a lot more sun than many of these countries, so it seems that we fall short legislatively, rather than physically.
Last year Germany produced 4.5% of its electricity from solar power, yet the effectiveness of solar energy varies with the weather. On July 21, the best day for solar production last year, solar panels produced 20.9 percent of the nation’s electricity, while on Jan. 18 they accounted for just .1 percent.
Alas, our infinite energy source is our most unreliable.
Thankfully, there are ways that we can literally save the sun for a rainy day. “Hybrid” storage systems and batteries are now making their way into mainstream use, which allows PV solar panels to use batteries to collect and store energy. The Alt Daber solar power plant in Germany is the first plant to incorporate a large-scale battery storage system to their plant. The battery system has put the plant on equal footing with traditional large-scale power plants.
Improvements like these are making great leaps for solar energy internationally. The market for solar energy has grown 30 percent per year for the last 20 years, and continues to grow thanks to falling prices and increasing research investments. Germany and Japan boast the two largest PV solar energy economies, both fueled by government-incentivized programs that stimulate development and investment. With tax incentives, solar energy plants can usually pay for themselves in five to ten years.
Solar energy is the most plentiful, readily available, and under-utilized source of energy there is, and it could be the key to ending the climate crisis. It will become a key player in the energy markets of the future, and whether the U.S. makes the switch or not will ultimately be up to voters and legislators. So you decide; would you rather be around for another 100 years, or 2.8 billion?