Saturday, May 23, 2009

There is no more important energy

Solar energy comes to us in many forms: solar electric (photovoltaic), solar thermal, solar hot water, passive solar design, . . . a farmer’s tan. Hydrocarbon fuels too are derived from ancient solar energy.

The Rate Crimes conversation centers on solar electric energy because of its importance to the future of our society: a society that is defined by electric energy as much as by the fuels that currently provide us mobility.

Solar electric energy has myriad advantages over the traditional fuels that provide us with electricity. Solar energy is plentiful, clean, immediate, proximate, distributed, mobile, scalable, unobtrusive, long-lived, durable, gathered, simple, safe, unassailable, independent, equitable, and profitable. And, like no other energy source, solar energy has the potential to become ubiquitous.

Solar energy is plentiful. Enough solar energy falls on the Earth in one hour to power the whole planet for an entire year. Resources for exothermic reactions (e.g. combustion, fission) diminish. As this occurs, these traditional fuel resources will no longer be able to meet our demand for energy. Energy generated by the photoelectric effect will supplant the traditional fuels.

Solar energy is clean. The solar source itself is integral to nearly all life on this planet. The current technology that gathers this energy does relatively little damage to the environment. This technology is improving rapidly.

Solar energy is immediate. The intermediary materials and processes between the resource and its acquisition are thin in comparison to those of traditional fuels. Transparent celestial and atmospheric mechanics determine availability. The eons of geological and biological processes that deliver traditional fuels are far more opaque. This immediacy binds each of us more closely to the natural flows of energy that daily surround us.

Solar energy is proximate. It can be gathered where it is needed. Much of the inefficiency and destruction that occurs in the transportation and transmission of energy is avoided. Generating energy locally also increases awareness of its value and consequences.

Solar energy is distributed. Solar energy generation can be sited throughout an energy network. Because it is relatively mobile, it may be relocated to meet new local demands. It provides for an inherently flexible network design.

Solar energy is scalable on both local sites and within networks of all sizes.

Solar energy is unobtrusive. The most visible elements of a solar electric system can easily be integrated into new or existing structures. Even large arrays hardly disrupt an horizon; as do cooling towers, smoke stacks, wind turbines, and transmission lines. There is no need to banish solar to distant fields to hide unsightly structures, frenetic activity, noise, or toxic emissions.

Solar energy is long-lived. A typical solar electric energy system will gather energy for many decades.

Solar energy is durable. Even forty-year-old, first-generation solar modules are still producing energy. Today’s modules are typically warranted for 25 years. They are designed to withstand high winds and energetic impacts. Solar electric energy systems require relatively little maintenance.

Solar energy is gathered. Once established, a solar electric system gathers a regular flow of energy throughout its decades-long lifecycle. There is rarely a need to hunt new resources to replace those being gathered.

Solar energy is simple. No cadre of specialists is required to sustain system operation or to manage toxic wastes.

Solar energy is safe. A solar electric energy system presents little danger beyond what already exists in a structure’s electrical system.

Solar energy is unassailable. There is no vulnerable, centralized target. No security force is required to protect the system.

Solar energy provides independence. Combined with energy storage, a solar electric system can provide a comfortable lifestyle in remote locations. Elsewhere, it can provide independence from abusive markets and help reduce one’s consumption of traditional fuels that one may consider to be unethical.

Solar energy is equitable. Electical power translates into economic and political power.

Solar energy is profitable. In regions where the solar resource is greatest, an investment in solar electric energy has long outperformed traditional investments. From another perspective, avoiding charges from the electric utility is often your best investment.

Solar energy can become ubiquitous. While some locations are more gifted than others, the sun shines everywhere.

As important as solar energy is, it is not, by itself, a panacea. While it is unlimited, it is not without constraints. However, the constraints shall be overcome. Future posts will expand on many of these attributes of solar energy and its constraints.

The great promise of solar energy is for each person, wherever they may be, to generate an abundance of clean electricity for their own use and to share freely with their neighbors. The failed promise of nuclear energy to provide electricity that is “too cheap to meter” will eventually be realized with solar energy.

© Copyright 2006 SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan)

Territory size is proportional to the percentage of world electricity production that occurs there.

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