What’s all the Fuss About Solar Energy?

Solar here, solar there! Nowadays, a week hardly goes by without you seeing or hearing something related to solar energy. Solar energy is the energy we derive from sunlight which can be converted into other forms of energy mostly by solar panels or solar heat collectors. In recent times, the popularity of solar energy technologies has grown drastically despite very many challenges.  

To some people, solar energy is just another power technology trying hard to make its way into every gadget, home, office or industry. To some others, it is a power toy that appeals to only techies and individuals that want to be affiliated to the slowly emerging New World Order.

But I choose to disagree. Not because I think solar technology is for everyone but because I believe solar energy technologies present to us all the opportunity to transform a limitless source of energy – the sun, into very useful everyday forms of energy.

Different ancient civilizations have made efforts to harness the sun’s energy. For over a century, scientists have researched ways to exploit the energy from the sun in order to convert it into exploitable forms such as usable heat and electricity. The sun’s power is estimated to be about 386,000,000 billion mega watts; this we understand is unlimited simply because the sun itself is self-forming.

The ultimate question has been “how can we exploit this freely occurring, infinite energy source and convert into other forms of energy which can be used to power our everyday lives?”

The first major solar breakthrough was attained in late nineteenth century when French scientist, Alexandre Edmund Becquerel discovered that sunlight can be converted to electrical energy at the age of 19. He constructed the first solar panel which was able to generate electricity currents when exposed to sunlight. This was the beginning of it all.

Electricity is arguably the most useful and portable form of energy and has been the prime candidate of the conversion of the sun’s colossal energy bank. In theory, all energy forms on earth all get their existence from the sun. Even both coal and fossil fuels had the sun’s influence during their formation processes.

After the discovery of the commercial use of coal and subsequently oil and gas, the research in solar technologies suffered a major setback as most government policies favoured the newly discovered sources. Due to this, most solar technology researches were ill funded or abandoned. But when the energy crisis surfaced in the 1970s (OPEC oil embargo), energy security-conscious governments began to take keen interests in alternative sources of energy. Solar energy was unsurprisingly one of the top on their lists. And since then, the research and development of clean and renewable energy sources such as solar energy have cranked up several gears in providing sustainable and environment friendly energy alternatives.

In the early days of the renewed solar energy development, the associated costs were very high and the technical know-how quite scarce. Today, scientific findings have led to exceptionally significant advancements which are now undeniably answering the ultimate question to a large extent. These days, constantly evolving solar technologies such as solar photovoltaic (electricity), solar thermal electricity and solar heating have been employed in so many passive and active ways. We see solar technologies used globally to power millions of homes and businesses. The most interesting are the large scale commercial uses such as applications to power thousands of farms, hospital wards, roads and bridges, train stations, schools, colleges and universities, industries and many more all over the world.

One question that I am often asked is “But what do we stand to gain from using solar technologies?” As I always respond, the benefits of using solar technologies are very general but could also be specific depending on your peculiar circumstance. Hundreds of thousands of home and business owners are presently benefiting from cheaper energy bills from the use of solar technologies in their buildings after taking advantage of government incentives and schemes in their respective countries. Many more enjoy more stable power supply due to the inclusion of solar technologies to their energy mix.

Generally, every solar energy user generates their power from a clean, reliable and environment-friendly source. Also, most of them will be fairly and insulated from the ever rising prices of fossil fuels.

The present (r)evolution of the solar energy sector is as it has never been seen before. More recently, scientists have become much cleverer and practical with solar technologies thus devising ways to use more cost effective materials to produce more competent, efficient and better performing solar cells to generate more power. This has inevitably driven the prices of solar cells down from $23.00/watt in 1980 to $0.50/watt as at July 2013; a staggering 98% decrease in price.

And guess what. There is more good news to come. The current stage of the solar energy industry is very fascinating and encouraging as recent discoveries in solar technology innovations such as diamond wire sawing of photovoltaic solar cells, advanced metallization solutions and increased automation in manufacturing processes are predicted to even reduce prices further.

Inevitably, we will witness many more positive changes in the solar energy industry as many of us have now realized that the way forward in solving our energy problems is diversifying our energy sources, with the sun’s energy being an obvious option. As the number of people who want to use cleaner, reliable and more sustainable energy alternatives grow, so will the solar energy sector.

The renewed global interest in solar technologies is genuine and justifiable. The advantages are obvious and as solar technology systems become more and more affordable, more people will see the obvious benefits and join the slowly emerging new world order.

So, that’s what all the fuss is about.

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Lanre Okanlawon is the Founder and Executive Director of Greenicles Energy and Trade Limited and a Renewable Energy masters degree holder from Durham University. As an individual, Lanre has a very strong interest in the development of solar power. Recently, he has been covering the prospects of solar energy in Africa. He tweets as @Lanre_Ok

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