Can Renewable Energy Power The Future
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I plan to write a lot about the near-term prospects for clean energy, both economic and political, but I want to start life here with an imaginative exercise, a little thought about what energy might look like in the future — not 10 or 20 years from now. now, but 50, 70, even 100 years before.
Can Renewable Energy Power The Future
Of course, predicting the distant future is a real game if you take it too seriously. This article is more about storytelling, a way of looking at the present through a different lens, than pure prophecy. But storytelling is important. And since one can feel confident about predicting the distant future, I feel pretty good about that.
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Here it is: solar photovoltaic (PV) energy will eventually dominate global energy. The question is not if, but when. Maybe it will happen sooner than anyone expects – say in 2050. Or maybe it won’t happen until the year 3000, or later. But it will happen.
The main reason is quite simple: solar PV is different from any other source of electricity, in a way that makes it uniquely suited to the needs of the 21st century. (Among the requirements I count availability, durability and sustainability.)
A worker cleans panels at a solar park run by the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE). (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Every other commercial electricity source—except solar photovoltaic—produces power in the same way: by turning a turbine.
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Coal plants, gas plants, solar power plants, and concentrated solar power plants are just different ways of boiling water to produce steam that turns turbines. Wind energy uses the wind to turn a turbine. Hydroelectric dams use flowing water to drive turbines. The spinning turbine, in turn, provides mechanical force to the electric generator, which converts it into an electric current (this is done by moving an electric conductor through a magnetic field – see Faraday’s Law).
Solar PV works differently: it converts sunlight directly into electricity. Photons of light excite the surface of the semiconductor, releasing electrons to become part of the charged electric field, creating an electromotive force that can be tapped by the wire. (See: Photovoltaic Effect.)
This difference sounds technical, but it is very consequential. It brings three obvious advantages, which are often touted by advocates of solar energy.
First, solar cells have no moving parts, so operation and maintenance costs are usually very low. It should be kept clean, but that’s about it.
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Second, solar cells require no fuel – so fuel costs are zero. Once the initial investment has been paid off, and the modest maintenance and upkeep costs are deducted, the energy is generated freely.
(Note: The manufacture and disposal of solar cells now requires fuel and produces waste, so the above claim requires a rather large footnote. component.)
The unique way of generating energy from solar PV has another important consequence: it can be very distributed. Many utilities now rely on large, mile-long fields of panels to build solar power – but solar power can also be scaled down to feet, even inches. Wherever the sun hits, some of it can be harvested for energy.
But not much energy. Indeed, solar skeptics often cite this feature as a weakness of PV technology. Although there is enough cumulative sunlight to power human civilization thousands of times more, they note, it is still very scattered. The amount of energy in all parts of sunlight is modest. So to gather a large amount of energy needed to power an industrial civilization, solar cells must cover a large amount of surface area.
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Solar skeptics believe that this puts an upper limit on the sun’s contribution. They believe that civilization will always need some kind of concentrated fuel, simply because of the consumption of concentrated energy. They believe there is no way to collect enough diffuse renewable resources to power plants, hospitals and other mainstays of Western life, meaning that the future of energy will involve fossil fuels or nuclear energy, both of which are solid energy.
I think this is a mistake. In fact, being a passive collector of diffuse energy will be used for the advantages of solar in the long term, not its disadvantage.
To understand why, we need to anticipate the limitations of current solar PV technology. Today’s silicon panels – which have become more expensive thanks to China’s largesse – are still relatively large and heavy. Their production and disposal includes toxic chemicals. And the efficiency with which they convert sunlight into energy is low, about 10 to 15 percent.
But this limitation is not inherent to PV. Researchers have been experimenting with new materials that are less toxic. There are mass-produced panels that achieve 20 percent efficiency. Under laboratory conditions, solar cells achieve efficiencies as high as 46 percent, more than three times the average:
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Most solar cells today are built into large black panels, but as they get smaller, they begin to be integrated into other things—everything from buildings and rooftops to roads, bus stops, and farms.
So let’s try to think beyond the limitations of today’s PV into the possible future – after, say, 20 or 30 years of intensive research, development and application.
Imagine small, modular, highly efficient solar cells built into all new infrastructure built as a matter of course – buildings, bridges, parking lots, vehicles. Solar PV will no longer be its own product category, but a regular feature of other products. As energy storage also becomes cheaper, smaller and better integrated, it will be useful to regularly collect and release small amounts of energy.
Electricity delivery can also be more distributed, making better use of all the solar energy. For example, soon ordinary customers will be able to charge their electric vehicles without cables, just by parking in the right place. According to a recent report by Navigant Research, “It is now clear that several major automakers plan to bring wireless systems to market in the next few years, and a large portion of the industry believes that wireless technology is the plug-in future. .” charging Electric Vehicles (PEV).
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After decades of development, the possibility of wireless charging will also be more efficient and smaller. Imagine a city infrastructure where wireless charging is everywhere – on curbs, benches and buses – where all electrical devices are always charged by sunlight that is always collected and stored. Energy distribution can effectively be ambient.
Just as we expect all our devices today to be able to connect to the Internet, uploading and downloading information, in the future we can expect all our devices and structures to be connected to this distributed energy network, collecting, storing and sharing solar power.
You often hear energy experts talk about “distributed energy,” but in terms of electricity, that usually means more gas or wind turbines scattered around — except in the case of solar PV. Only solar PV has the potential to eventually spread to the infrastructure, to become a ubiquitous and unobtrusive feature of the built environment.
This will create a more robust power system than the current grid, which can be brought down by cascading failures from a single point of vulnerability, single line or substation. An intelligent grid where everyone is always producing, consuming and sharing energy at the same time cannot be paralyzed by the failure of one or a small group of points or lines. It simply revolves around them.
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Will solar PV provide enough energy? Now, you can’t power a city like New York entirely with solar PV even if you cover every square inch of panels. The question is whether that will be true in 30 or 50 years. What efficiencies and innovations could be unlocked as solar cells and energy storage become more efficient and ubiquitous? If the whole city harvests and shares energy? When will today’s centralized and centralized power grid evolve into a self-healing energy grid? When energy functions like a real market, built on millions of real-time microtransactions between energy peers, instead of a crude statistical model of today’s utilities?
Energy-using systems will evolve with this new model of energy production, storage and sharing. They will be smarter and more efficient, not just in the way current technology becomes more efficient, but in an incremental, non-linear way, replacing whole systems rather than parts.
My optimistic view is that global energy demand will peak and begin to decline by the end of this century, even as the supply of solar PV and storage grows everywhere. Eventually they will meet in the middle, relegating other energy sources to the periphery as a backup.
This is all science fiction for now, I realize, about a change that will surely take decades to unfold.
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