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Current Status and Future of Solar Energy
Solar energy (SE) is defined as the energy received by the earth from the sun (Elnugoumi, Ahmed, & Almsafir, 2012). It is not only the cleanest and most abundant renewable energy source on the planet but also an extremely flexible one because energy can be produced anywhere, from house roofs to large solar stations in deserts. SE production has been increasing during the past decades as more and more governments and commercial organizations invest in this fast-growing industry (REN 21, 2015). However, the future of this sector depends on whether the present challenges associated with infrastructure, cost, competitiveness, and technology will be addressed. This short research paper aims at discussing these issues and reflecting on the future of solar energy in the global market.
SE can be generated in several ways including photovoltaic (PV), solar heating and cooling technologies, and concentrated solar power (CSP). PV devices are made from materials that exhibit the “photovoltaic effect,” which means that they generate electricity once the sunshine hits the cells (Luque & Hegedus, 2011). Solar photovoltaics are becoming more accessible and affordable, so they are currently widely used both by individual energy consumers and large companies. Furthermore, solar heating and cooling technologies collect sun energy and use it to heat water and space in residential, industrial, and commercial buildings. Finally, CSP technology is used to concentrate solar radiation that helps drive engines or steam turbines that create electricity (Cao & Orrù, 2014).
The history of solar energy began in 1876 when scientists found that selenium can produce electricity when being exposed to the sunlight (Perlin, 1999). In 1963, researchers discovered that silicon solar cell was far more efficient than selenium in producing energy and could be used for powering small electric devices. Three years later, solar cells were already available commercially, and since that time their cost has reduced considerably (Clark & Cooke, 2011). In a period from the 1970s to the 2000s, the sphere of application of solar cells has increased, and their efficiency improved. In 1982, the world’s first solar power plant was launched in California, which became a prototype for large contemporary power stations (Thomas, 2007). Today, as the technology becomes more sophisticated and efficient, solar cells are used in a wide variety of places, from homes to solar powered cars. Large corporations including Tesla and Panasonic invest in innovative SE projects that are becoming increasingly popular with regular consumers.
Solar power is being increasingly used across the globe. According to the 2015 estimates, countries with the higher solar energy production include Germany, China, Japan, Italy, United States, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Several Asian countries, such as South Korea, India, and Thailand, as well as Middle Eastern states including Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, are also exploring their SE potential (REN 21, 2015). European Union is currently the leader in SE production, which is being continuously increased to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, diversify energy supplies, and reduce dependency on foreign fossil fuel markets. In 2014, almost 25.4 % of all energy produced in the EU came from renewables including the wind, solar, and water power (Eurostat, 2016). Given the fact that the European countries aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80%-95% by 2050, one may expect that the use of SE in this part of the world will increase in the following years (Pitz-Paal et al., 2013).
There are still some challenges that prevent people from using SE to its full potential. To begin with, the amount of solar power varies significantly depending on the time of a day, weather, and the season. Even the passing of a cloud can reduce electrical output by half within just a few seconds. Therefore, there should be additional technologies and sources of power to balance the system (Bird, Milligan, & Lew, 2013). Another challenge of using SE is the accurate measurement and short-term prediction of the cloud fields that affect the level of radiation on earth (Juhlin, Hangx, & Bruckman, 2014). It takes a lot of resources and time to model and measure power availability in a particular area and choose the most favorable site for solar panels. However, ongoing advancement in this aspect, especially in relation to solar maps that quantify solar potential in a given location, allow suggesting that this problem will be eliminated in the nearest future (Kanters, Wall, & Kjellsson, 2014).
One should also not forget about the barriers associated with commercialization and infrastructure because SE has to compete with more powerful and affordable fossil fuel producers. Although the cost of SE has been decreasing for the past decade, energy produced from coal or natural gas is still cheaper (Lobello, 2013). Without substantial government subsidies, such as those provided to SE producers in Japan, the industry will not be able to compete with fossil fuels, to say nothing of replacing them. Finally, the efficiency of solar cells is still relatively low, and new materials and technologies are required that will be less expensive and easy to manufacture. The future of the industry, therefore, depends on whether the governments and private companies will invest in solar energy and address the current challenges.
Despite the existing problems, scientists still believe that SE has the potential to grow in the nearest future, mostly because of its unparalleled capacity. SE will be accessible as long as the sunlight reaches the earth, which makes it the best source of energy one can imagine (Newton, 2015). Besides, SE can reduce countries’ dependence on fossil fuels and prevent producers from using energy as a political tool. In the face of the climate change and increased carbon dioxide emissions, SE gains even more importance because this source of energy is totally safe and environmentally-friendly (Dawson & Spannagle, 2008).
Given the evidence provided above, one may suggest that SE will be developing further despite the current challenges. Although technologies for producing electricity from sunlight are still flawed, SE remains the most accessible and ecological way of energy production. The growing awareness of the dangers and limits of fossil fuels will likely encourage governments and private companies to invest more in developing SE technologies and increasing their capacity and effectiveness. To conclude, SE can contribute to more sustainable and conscientious energy production and reduce dependence on oil imports, which will benefit both developed and developing nations.