When we think of light and energy there are two approaches that come to mind: one is here now and has much immediate potential, and the other is "around the corner," awaiting further development. For this latter source of energy we refer to the use of powerful lasers to create fusion under controlled conditions. The former is of course solar energy. In fact, the energy from the sun that reaches the Earth can be converted into heat and electricity, and governments and scientists worldwide are working to develop affordable and clean solar energy technologies. Solar energy will provide a practically-inexhaustible resource that will enhance sustainability, reduce pollution and lower the cost of mitigating climate change.
This page contains a number of links and resources to let you learn about the various technologies underlying solar energy, and its benefits for the world and our planet. Coupled with the vast potential of laser fusion, our energy future could indeed be quite bright.
Solar energy is produced by harnessing heat from the sun’s rays using technologies like solar heating, solar photovoltaics (solar panels) and solar thermal electricity, amongst others. The use of solar energy has increased dramatically over the past decade to pave the way for a cleaner, more sustainable energy future. This technology is used in residential, commercial, agricultural, and even rural areas. Solar energy is becoming a crucial investment for our Earth’s future as we face climate change and natural resource shortages worldwide.
Below are several different ways solar energy is utilized.
Architecture & Urban Planning
Passive solar architecture is used to create well-lit spaces at comfortable temperatures. By orienting buildings properly based on climate and implementing a low surface area to volume, solar architects create energy-efficient homes that rely on almost exclusively on energy from the sun.
Agriculture & Horticulture
In agriculture and horticulture, solar energy helps to make better use of the sun’s energy. Mass storage of solar energy is not just used in large-scale thermal power plants. Greenhouses are the most common application of solar energy in this category and are used to convert solar light to heat in order to grow crops that are not suited to the natural climate in certain areas.
Solar-powered cars are a long-anticipated technological development, but are not yet a reality for the general public. This is not to say that solar-powered cars do not exist. The North American Solar Challenge, for example, has hosted teams competing in designing, building, and driving solar-powered cars for over 20 years. Solar energy is also used in vehicles for auxiliary power applications to reduce fuel consumption.
Passenger boats, aircrafts, and other forms of transportation are also incorporating solar energy. Already, extensive trips (including a 54 hour flight) have been made using solar technology, showing that the future of completely solar-powered transportation is not far off.
Desalination & Water Recycling
Climate change and droughts, paired with a rapidly increasing world population is driving a rising global demand for freshwater. Water.org estimates that almost 800 million people lack access to clean water. Thermal desalination (ridding seawater and brackish water of salt and impurities) by way of PV systems is one viable option is creating more readily-available freshwater. Solar PV systems can also be used to purify and reuse water. Although reverse osmosis using electrically power pumps is still the preferred method, these applications of solar power are crucial in meeting the needs of our current exponential population growth.
Thermal energy generated by the sun can be used for a multitude of tasks, from cooking to cooling and more. These applications of the sun’s energy are both low-tech and very useful.
Solar hot water heaters are used around the world to heat residential homes and especially pools. In residential and commercial areas, solar thermal can be used to supply thermal energy in the form of heating, cooling, and ventilation year-round. Other applications of solar thermal energy include water treatment and solar cookers, both of which are becoming increasingly important in the economic development in rural, off-grid communities.
Solar Energy & Climate Change
The need for alternative energy has become more and more apparent as the imminent threat of climate change becomes a reality. According to the International Energy Association, technologies such as photovoltaic panels and solar water heaters have the potential to provide up to a third of the world’s energy by the year 2060. This projection, which is both bold and plausible, would require international participation in reducing greenhouse gas emission through increased usage of solar energy and decreased reliance on fossil fuels.
Concentration solar power (CSP) systems use mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight onto a small area. The solar thermal energy collected is then converted into heat, which typically powers an electrical power generator. The demand for CSP systems, namely in commercial industries, is on the rise. Despite their hefty price tag, these systems are desirable due to their ability to store electricity.
Developments in photovoltaic (PV) technology and the ability to generate, store, and use electrical energy locally without long-range transmission is bringing about transformational changes in electricity infrastructures. With proper education and financial resources, electricity generation by photovoltaics (solar panels) has the potential to transform the infrastructure in underdeveloped, emerging, and developed economies.
The low cost and reliability of PV is leading to its dominance over other alternative forms of electricity, such as wind energy and concentrated solar power (CSP). However, installation of such alternatives are also increasing rapidly worldwide.
To learn more about solar energy, visit the following resources:
Making Solar Cells a Reality in Every Home: Opportunities and Challenges for Photovoltaic Device Design
“Globally the cumulative installed photovoltaic (PV) capacity has topped the 100-gigawatt (GW) milestone and is expected to reach 200 GW by the year 2015…”
Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme Annual Report 2013
“The IEA Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme IEA PVPS is pleased to present its 2013 annual report. 2013 has been a turning point in many aspects for the global development of photovoltaics: On the one hand, the rapid cost reduction of photovoltaic power systems of the last years has continued throughout the year, but at a slower pace…”
Major Solar Projects Interactive Map (US Only)
Explore photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP) projects throughout the US. This map, created by Solar Energy Industries Association, shows all major projects that are currently operating, under construction, and under development.
Special thanks to Rajendra Singh, Amir A. Asif, Ganesh K. Venayagamoorthy, Akhlesh Lakhtakia, Mahmoud Abdelhamid, Githin F. Alapatt, and David A. Ladner for providing much of this information.
Laser fusion (aka inertial confinement fusion) uses the world’s largest lasers in order to create tiny stars in the laboratory. Although still at the development stage, if this can be achieved, these stars will burn isotopes of hydrogen using the fusion process. This would unlock an essentially limitless source of carbon-free energy with none of the potential problems of high-level radioactive waste associated with fission energy.