The threats posed by our relationship to energy has given rise to some devastating results on a global and a personal scale like human-induced climate change, famine, poverty and cycles of deforestation; all these while on our overzealous appetite search for energy. Global economic, environmental and social pressures are driving the human race to search for a better alternative and renewable source of energy that is also more eco-friendly, reliable and sustainable. Many national governments have stated making energy policies with solar energy harnessing as the backbone of these policies. Nations are trying to escape the uncertainties that come with the fact that most fossil fuels have their deposit localized in particulars areas of the earth, a region that is filled with political tensions which affect mostly the supply of the fuels. The amount of pollution caused by these fossil fuels is a big concern that has made people more aware of the need to find a more environmentally friendly energy source. (Solangi, Islamb, Saidura, Rahimb, & Fayazb, 2011)
Solar energy has been used for a long time ever since the prehistoric times where it was used to heat the house, cure food or dry clothes. Its importance in these times was so enormous that many cultures saw the sun as a god while others codified its power in their laws. For example, ancient Romans relied so heavily on solar energy to heat their homes and bathhouses that it was illegal to build a house or dwelling so tall so as to block the sunlight of any neighbor.
The number of environmentalists, scientists, economists, policy experts, and citizens who understand that the world will soon run short of relatively cheap energy is growing rapidly and the realization that an alternative source must be found sooner than later is embedded in each of their minds. Solar energy is the most promising source of energy next in line to solve this need since reliance on a freely available resource that is indigenous and inexhaustible must be very attractive at the moment apart from the fact that it will reduce the current overreliance on fossil fuel, rendering their prices to reduce and stabilize, and its sustainability. Solar energy harvesting will also reduce the already high levels of pollution. This energy does not have any waste products like the greenhouse gases being emitted through the use of either fossil fuels or nuclear energy which is the basis of it being considered by many as the next best option in the attempts of controlling climate change and at the same time lowering the costs of preventing global warming.
Solar energy technologies currently available are either grouped as passive or active. The groups are based on the way these technologies capture, convert and distribute sunlight. The active technology uses photovoltaic panels, pumps and fans to convert sunlight into useful energy that can be used to accomplish other applications like heating water to be used for bathing, producing heat for industrial melting or producing electricity directly or through turning steam turbines. Passive involves designing spaces that naturally circulate air and referencing the position of a building to the sun (Bradford, 2006).
Through passive solar technologies sunlight has influenced the way architects design houses since time in memorial which is evidenced by the Greek buildings which were constructed facing south in order to be warm and provide light. In recent times, greenhouses are a great example of passive technology because it targets to optimize the capture of sunlight. The light is converted to heat which favors productivity of plants even during offseason or in a climate not favorable to the particular crop.
Other energy resources
There many different types of energy resources on planet earth, some being renewable and others non-renewable. The terms renewable energy and alternative energy are freely interchangeable because alternative energy simply means any energy source apart from the traditional fossil fuels. The renewable energy sources include:
a) Biofuels — are liquid fuels obtained directly from biomass and are seen as the green alternative to petrol and diesel. They are seen as the best green energy alternative for third world countries. Biofuels do not cause pollution and unlike fossil fuel are absorbed by the environment in case of spillage. They are biodegradable, nontoxic and free of aromatic hydrocarbons. The carbon dioxide they release during combustion does not add to the average composition of carbon in the atmosphere because it is readily used up by plants for photosynthesis (Reyes, 2007). There are several countries that have seriously undertaken to exploit this type of renewable energy like Brazil and the Philippines. However, for this to be a success it should not interfere with food security of the producing areas since the plants used to produce the biomass converted into biofuel may be planted on lands originally allocated to farming.
b) Biomass — this is the biological matter that builds living things. Through direct combustion it is used to produce electricity, by turning turbines, or heat. In an indirect method, it is converted to liquid fuel use to run engines.
c) Geothermal — this is energy that is generated and also stored in the earth’s core. In hot springs, thermal energy has been used for bathing. However, it is predominantly known for the generation of electricity. It is environmentally friendly, cost effective, reliable and sustainable. It has the disadvantage of being restricted to area around tectonic plate activity (for example, the rift valley in Africa).
d) Hydroelectricity — energy produced from turbines being turned through the action of accelerating water, mostly rivers or waterfalls. This energy is not very reliable and sustainable as production may fall victim to harsh environmental conditions like drought, which has led to power rationing in most developing and third world countries resulting in huge losses to business ventures.
e) Wave power — is mostly restricted to the oceans and seas where the strength and frequency of waves is highest. The tidal waves are used to turn turbines in the same concept used in hydroelectric power generation. Wave power devices derive from energy from the surface motion of waves or from the fluctuations in pressure at different levels of ocean water below the sea.
f) Wind power — this involves the conversion of wind energy into useful energy through the use of wind turbines (make electricity) and wind pumps (pumping water). Wind power is generated due to differences in pressure regions, earth rotation and irregular nature of the earth surfaces. This type of energy has been in use for a very long time now with the Babylonians using it to irrigate their farms and also sailors in pre-historic times using winds power to drive the boats and ships.
The above energy sources are termed renewable because they are naturally and constantly replenished by the sunlight, except geothermal and tidal wave. This stresses the importance of the sun as an energy resource. These types of energy are reliable and are available in plenty. It is believed they will become cheap and more accessible once the infrastructure and technologies improve. They are preferred to non-renewable sources because they don’t involve some activities that can be looked at as dangerous which are a big part of obtaining the coals, oil and gases. These include activities like mining and drilling, therefore, it is a safer way of obtaining energy.
Since these renewable sources are available within the confines of a nation, the reliance on importation of energy will surely decrease. The amount of strain put on the economy of most countries due to high levels of importation of oil and coal will be lessened as producing energy will increase energy security within their borders.
Renewable energy has also the advantage that it does not emit gases that cause various problems both to the human health and the climate. The waste products from the generation of energy through renewable sources are freely safe or decompose freely, like the plant wastes obtain during production of biofuels.
The non- renewable energy resources are widely spread and in use throughout the world and most of them are the reasons for the relentless continued search for green forms of energy since they are the villains judged with ever changing climate patterns due to their exudes which cause every kind of pollution know to man. They include:
a) Fossil fuels — they include coal, oil and gas. They are formed through the natural process of anaerobic decomposition of biomass. These fuels have been are loyal servant to our species as they have driven the revolution and urbanization process since their discovery. However, they haven’t been all beneficial since through their use a number of harmful greenhouse gases are produced which have continuously destroyed the ozone layer, protecting the earth from the harmful, cancerous rays of the sun. The gases have caused climate change due to the warming of the globe. (Solangi, Islamb, Saidura, Rahimb, & Fayazb, 2011)
b) Nuclear energy — is formed as a result of changes called nuclear reactions occurring in the nuclei of atoms of heavy metals such as Uranium. At the present energy set-up nuclear energy provides around 20% of world’s electricity. This energy is produced naturally — by the sun and other stars making heat and light- and artificially-electricity from nuclear power plants. The nuclear power plants produce more energy using less fuel compared to the fossil fuels and hence it is seen as an environmentally friendly energy source (Ansolabehere, et al., 2003). However, the true scope of the consequences of developing nuclear energy has been realized through rather very unfortunate lessons. When names like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Hiroshima and Fukushima are mentioned the only thought that runs the minds of many must be disaster. Nuclear plants pose a great danger to the surrounding community in case of any accident. Although, the chances of an accident ever happening are very minimal this has not counteracted the fear people have towards nuclear energy producing plants.
The Fukushima explosion (Bradford, 2006)
This energy has very commanding disadvantages that have hindered its development. Some of these demerits include:
The fuel use to produce nuclear energy is not renewable and the deposits of uranium, the main raw material, are very scarce. it, therefore, has lost its role as a long-term solution to environmentally friendly energy source.
Production of plutonium from breeder nuclear reactors is a big problem to the maintenance of peace on earth. This element is used by terrorists to engineer dirty bombs that when used cause devastating destruction. Although the other types of reactors don’t produce plutonium, this issue needs to be resolved before nuclear energy being fully accepted (the reason why the UN has to inspect new projects aimed at nuclear energy production in countries and why USA is so opposed to the nuclear program being set-up by Iran).
Accidents — as mentioned above, the occurrence of an accident no matter how minute leads to a huge loss of lives. These accidents known as meltdowns happen when the fission reaction goes out of control leading to a nuclear explosion and emission of great amounts of radiation as witnessed in Fukushima, 3/11/11. The radiation destroys the body cells leading to sickness or immediate death. The land around the accident also becomes uninhabitable for decades because the decomposition rate of the nuclear materials is extremely slow. (Ansolabehere, et al., 2003)
The cost of building nuclear facilities is very high.
Waste nuclear materials have highly radioactive making them very dangerous to dispose. This has become a barrier to the expansion of nuclear power because the wastes either need an extra setting to store the dangerous radioactive wastes or to be buried deep into the ground in a restricted area. This area dedicated to depositing these waste remain unproductive for long periods of time.
The Solar Revolution
Having looked at all the above energy resources it is evident that solar energy provides the most appropriate direction to follow if we are to save this planet and ensure the survival of current and future generations. Today, grid-connected photovoltaic systems are providing an alternative source of energy in the form of electricity to homes and buildings. Solar mass-any material that absorbs and stores the sun’s heat- and solar chimney have also been incorporated into buildings where they act as heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Solar cookers, on the other hand, harness sunlight for cooking, drying and pasteurization while solar hot water heaters use the sunlight to heat water. Solar water heaters have become a common feature in the households of many developed and developing countries as it offers a very cheap alternative of obtaining hot water. For example, in Israel 90% of homes use solar hot water system hot water systems (Bradford, 2006).
Solar energy being chosen to be the next big thing in energy production has come because of the advantages the following advantages (Scheer, (1995)):
i. Creation of new jobs in almost all the sectors of the economy.
ii. The introduction of solar energy offers the opportunity to reduce the administrative costs and cost of supplying energy since power lines would not be needed.
iii. Increase in land use since the land under solar panels is very minimal compared to that used to hold hydroelectric or geothermal power plants.
iv. Solar energy does not require any fuel.
v. It is not affected by the supply and demand of fuel and is therefore not subjected to the ever-increasing price of gasoline.
vi. Eco-friendly; Solar Energy is clean, renewable and sustainable, helping to protect our environment.
vii. Solar energy does not produce the greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide). Therefore, does not cause global warming or formation of acidic rain.
viii. The use of solar energy reduces dependence on foreign and centralized sources of energy, influenced by natural disasters or international events and so contributes to a sustainable future.
ix. Once installed solar energy equipments require very minimal maintenance and last a long time with warranties of over 20 years.
x. Additional panels can be added when the demand of energy increases.
As nature would testify there is nothing perfect under the face of the sun and solar energy is not an exception. These are some disadvantages associated with this resource:
When installing solar energy system, the initial cost of installation is the main demerit. This is a result of the high cost of semi-conductive materials used to make these panels or solar cells.
The cost of solar energy is becoming more expensive as the supply of energy using non-renewable sources diminishes. However, the industry continues to gain experience and the scale of production of distributed PV increases, the cost per kWh delivered of solar energy is dropping and will continue to drop as a function of cumulative global production (Bradford, 2006).
The amount of output per day is influenced by the amount daytime and pollution levels of the air where the solar generating devices are installed. Only areas around the equator having the greatest potential because the durations of sunshine can be easily predictable since the length of day rarely fluctuate.
The current market status
The development of supporting policies has lead to the exponential grown in the installation of solar technologies all over the globe With Germany, China, Japan, Italy and United States leading. By December 2010, global installed capacity for PV had reached around 40 GW with crystalline silicon base photovoltaic cells dominating the market. Since fuel costs are highly volatile and capital costs of solar technologies are changing every year, an economic analysis carried out in one year might be outdated the next year (Timilsinaa, Kurdgelashvilib, & Narbelc, 2012).
However, the fact is that within ten to fifteen years distributed PV will be the cheapest electricity option for a majority of residential electricity consumers in the world. Since each market has its own dynamics like discounts, subsidies, installation costs or duration of sunshine, it is possible to determine where and when customers in a particular location will start to find it cost-effective to adopt PV. The key factors that will determine which markets will get to the cost-effectiveness first are: PV system cost, average sunlight received per day and the local price of the traditional grid-based electricity-grid-tied PV electricity becomes a cost-effective technology when its cost on a customer’s site, either home or building, drops below that of local grid electricity. Japan is the best example of this scenario as many residential homes have PV systems providing energy below the cost of grid electricity even without any subsidy (Bradford, 2006).
The facts that solar energy is sustainable and less affected by weather conditions make it a very promising energy resource. Solar energy constitutes the most abundant renewable energy resource available- the amount of solar energy reaching earth per year is approximately twice as much as the energy that will ever be obtained from all the non-renewable sources (coal, oil, natural gas and uranium) combined. It can be exploited both as through solar thermal and solar photovoltaic means making it limitless. The environmentally friendly trait of this energy type distances it from the other source because none can match to a technology that does not have wastes, requires no raw materials or will never be depleted. Solar energy will also aid to address the accessibility of energy to rural and marginalized areas.
Ansolabehere, S., Deutch, J., Driscoll, M.M., Gray, P.E., Holdren, J.P., Joskow, P.L., et al. (2003). The Future of Nuclear Powe,. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts.
Bradford, T. (2006). Solar Revolution, the MIT Press, Massachusetts.
Reyes, V. d. (2007). Bio-fuel,. De La Salle University, Dasmarinas.
Scheer, H. ((1995)). Solar energy’s economic and social benefits. Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells, 555-568.
Solangi, K.H., Islamb,, . M., Saidura, R., Rahimb,, . N., & Fayazb, H. (2011). A review on global solar energy policy. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 2149 — 2163.
Timilsinaa, G.R., Kurdgelashvilib, L., & Narbelc, P.A. (2012). Solar energy: Markets, economics and policies. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 449 — 465.
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