Every day, the Earth is bombarded with the Sun’s powerful rays. Some of the energy is used by plants and trees in photosynthesis, but most of it just heats up the planet. A better use would be to use the energy from the Sun to create electricity. The most common way to do this is by utilizing solar panels. Through the photovoltaic effect, electricity is produced when photons hit the solar panels. The commercially available panels are slowly getting more an more efficient. Currently, the sunlight conversion rate is roughly 21.5%, but this is expected to increase to 40% or even higher in the not-so-distant future.
So why aren’t the world throwing all their research money into solar panel technology? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we used a virtually endless, free source of energy instead of having to invest billions to be able to strip-mine non-renewable sources?
It’s All About The Benjamins
“Free” might be the keyword here. There’s no money to be made when something is free. Sure, buying, and mounting the solar panels are sources of income. But when that’s done, the panels are pretty much maintenance free, and have an expected lifespan of at least 25 years. Most of the material in old solar panels can be recycled, so there’s also some money to be made there. But for the 25+ years the panels are operational, the only one making money is the owner of the solar panel.
Compare that to all the dough involved in planning, constructing, managing, and maintaining an oil rig. It’s billions and billions of dollars. The money in solar panels is a drop in that polluted ocean.
Neither would the weapons industry benefit much if we stopped using oil as an energy source. You can’t invade a country because they have access to the Sun - everyone has that. Oil, on the other hand, is a scarce resource. They’ve got oil? Bomb them! And when everyone has access to the Sun, no one can control it. You can make shitloads of money by decreasing oil production, thus decreasing the availability, and artificially increasing the price. Hello, OPEC & friends. You can’t do the same when the source is the Sun.
You’re Forgetting About the Night, Dummy!
So in my naïve head, solar panels is pretty much the solution to the world’s energy problem.
There is one issue with using the Sun as an energy source, though: It’s not there during the night. But that’s not really a problem, is it? The Sun is always shining somewhere on Earth1. We’re already transporting electricity across the globe, there’s no good reason you can’t use electricity during the night in the US that’s produced in Europe. Also, the energy harvested from the Sun during the day can be stored. The stored energy can, in turn, be used during the night, when the Sun is busy elsewhere.
This can be achieved in numerous ways. You can use batteries, and store excess electricity during the day. But industry grade batteries are expensive, and I wouldn’t want to be around when a battery farm catches fire. It’s also possible to use the Sun to heat water, and use the heated water to produce electricity during the night. A much more elegant solution would be to combine the use of the Sun with another renewable energy source: Hydropower. Excess electricity produced during the day is used to pump water into a reservoir. During the night, the water stored is used to produce electricity with water turbines. The water reservoir is in practice a big-ass, non-flammable battery.
The funny thing is that this isn’t even science fiction. It’s something that might happen soon, at the Hoover Dam.
Money, meet Mouth
Throwing all our eggs in one renewable energy basket might sound like a bad idea. But if the Sun for some reason stops working, we’re in such a heap of trouble it won’t matter much if we don’t have the electricity to charge our smart phones. If you insist on being on the safe side, there are other sources of free energy that works quite well, too. Wind is one, and it’s an energy source that is being used with great success in for instance Denmark.
All this talk about solar panels, and renewable energy is great. But do I practice what I preach? No. Well, at least not yet, anyway. We’re toying with the idea of installing solar panels on roof of the house. Unfortunately, we might have to perform some unplanned house maintenance. Making sure the house doesn’t slide down the hill is a priority, and it’s possible the job will take a major bite out of our savings.
But we will get there eventually. We will produce electricity with our own solar panels one day. With today’s electricity prices in Norway, it’s not a financially sound idea, however. The electricity is relatively cheap, and solar panels are still rather expensive. But electricity prices might go boom one day. If the winters continue to be cold, and the summers hot, it might happen sooner than later. When it does, the prices of solar panel installations will also increase for a while due to increased demand.
With some luck, we’ll have solar panels on the roof in a couple of years. I’ll keep you posted. Of course.
And, also, on TV. ↩︎
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Nuclear power! It even kills less people than solar panels. Solar panels kills people? Well.. every once in a while the guy putting them up on the roof falls down and dies. And this happens more than the extremely unlikely event of someone being killed by the production of nuclear power.
Compared to coal, which kills an estimated number of 1 million people per year, going nuclear should be a no brainer.
Having been to Chernobyl and Pripyat, and seen the disaster potential, I still think wind and solar are better alternatives to coal than nuclear. The Chernobyl reactor that blew up was of a flawed design, which are not in use today. But nuclear disasters still happen, as recently as 2011 in Fukishima. And when not even the Japanese manage to think about everything, that makes me even more skeptical about nuclear.
On top of that, you have the bi-products of nuclear reactors. When the radioactive fuel is depleted, it has to be handled with great care. And let’s not forget about how attractive depleted uranium is for the creating of dirty bombs (and just like that, I’m flagged by the NSA).