Solar energy is an eco-friendly and inexpensive form of energy. This clean, safe and sustainable energy form has been used for centuries in various ways – to heat, to dry and to generate fire. Solar modules used for generating solar energy have long service life and low carbon footprint. Solar technology offers energy security as the use of solar panels reduces the uncertainty associated with carbon-based energy sources.
Lauding the benefits of solar energy, the European Union has set a target of meeting 20% of energy requirements using renewable solar energy by 2020. Several countries have stepped forward now to employ solar-powered clean energy technology for meeting the future demands by initiating large-scale projects such as the Solar Tower in Australia, China’s massive Solar Generator, and the CIS tower in Manchester.
Solar power is now being increasingly used for powering TV stations and radio repeater stations in addition to aircraft warning lights, buoys and lighthouses. In many parts of the world, solar energy is used to power off-grid desalination plants and pump water in remote areas. Photovoltaic cells installed in the roof of residential homes provide solar energy for use in heating water and swimming pools. Small gadgets like watches and calculators often make use of solar energy.
The solar energy has a number of advantages over other forms of energy, which are listed below:
- Solar energy avoids greenhouse gas emissions
- Inexpensive free energy
- It offers decentralization in various locations
- It avoids the need for mining operations
- It does not harm fresh water resources
The following are some of the drawbacks involved in using solar energy:
- Solar energy is unavailable during monsoon or under cloudy conditions.
- As currently available solar drip-feed batteries are bulky and expensive, there is no appropriate storing technology available for solar power.
- High installation costs of solar panels
Image Credit - NASA
The Future of Solar Energy
Experts state that the future of solar power depends on its efficient application. With the increase in use of solar panels, the average cost of manufacturing these panels is reducing considerably making solar energy the most efficient renewable energy source in near future. While no other renewable energy forms can work in space, solar energy is used to power space vehicles and satellites. Spacecrafts also make use of high efficiency solar cells to power themselves.
As human activities in space increases, it is believed that travel in solar power-driven space ships should be possible in the future. Eco-friendly solar plants can be created to generate solar energy by replacing carbon-producing oil and coal industry. In addition, solar panels can be fitted on the whole building to extract energy from sun. They can be integrated into the windows and walls as well. Upgrading old buildings with solar panels will in turn create more green energy in the future.
On the other hand, solar-powered clothing prototypes are being developed which will have clothes embedded with solar cells capable of generating solar energy to power devices like cell phones.
Solar Energy in Outer Space
Collecting solar power from Space for use in Earth has been under research since the 1970s. The solar energy available in space is cleaner and a billion times more than what we use now. Thanks to the filtering effects of atmospheric gases, the solar energy transmission from space is not much. Hence, the collection of solar energy in an orbit is nearly 144% more than maximum amount of energy attainable in the surface of the Earth. Unlike solar panels, the orbiting satellites can be exposed to large amount of solar radiation for a longer time. In addition, the solar power collecting satellites reside outside atmospheric gases which eliminates weather concerns like cloud cover, wind, etc. from interrupting the solar power collection.
The space solar power is used in almost all spacecrafts today. The combination of solar power with wireless power transmission technology can serve all our electrical needs on Earth. Moreover, space solar power can offer the required clean power for electric transportation systems in the future.
Listed below are the infrastructure and technologies required to attain solar power from space:
- Power transmission - Efforts have to be taken in transmitting the solar power from satellites to the Earth's surface without causing any environmental impact.
- Inexpensive, environmental-friendly launch vehicles - Launch vehicles used currently are expensive and pose high risk to the atmosphere at high launch rates.
- Large-scale in-orbit construction and operations - Large solar power satellites are required for gathering huge amount of energy.
In addition to the technologies discussed above, a space solar power plant can also be built using materials from space, which will need some investment. The receivers for collecting energy from the power plant can be placed on Earth. With the utilization of materials from near-Earth asteroids and Moon, the solar power plant would be free from environmental impact. With all these promising ideas and increasing demand for clean and eco-friendly energy sources, solar energy will certainly play a major role in the renewable energy sector in the future.