As more and more people realize the harmful effects that burning fossil fuels can have on our environment and health, they begin seeking out alternative options, like renewable energy sources. These sources of energy are easily and naturally replenished, and they do not have the same harmful impacts on the planet that coal, oil, and gas often create. Solar energy is one of the most popular forms of energy today, and it is quickly increasing its reach around the world.
What is Solar Energy?
Solar energy is electricity that is generated through solar photons that have been captured by specialized panels. These photons form an electrical circuit within the solar cells that are used to create solar panels, generating energy. An AC converter makes the energy useable in homes and businesses connected to a nearby array of solar panels. Many solar arrays can store or redistribute energy, making these arrays just as effective at night or on cloudy days.
Why is Solar Energy So Popular?
Solar energy has increased dramatically in popularity recently. There are several reasons for this change. First, solar panels are getting less expensive, making homeowners and business owners more likely to purchase and install them in their homes or businesses. Once installed, solar panels can save people a significant amount of money per month on their energy bills in many places. The panels are also low-maintenance, which can further save money. Those who find the cost to install solar panels prohibitive may be able to get loans or credits from local governments, which are working to promote the use of renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels. In addition to financial benefits, solar energy has a low impact on the environment. Solar energy use does not require any combustion, and most do not require water usage.
Cons of Solar Energy
Despite the many benefits of using solar energy, there are still some concerns. To create solar panels, the same hazardous and rare materials must be used as the ones found in most electronic devices. Disposing of this waste can be a challenge, and there are often questions about the way in which these resources are mined. Many solar panels are not capable of storing energy, making solar inefficient in cloudy or dark conditions. The panels that are capable of storage are often far more expensive. In addition, this dependence on weather conditions can create a shortage in the energy supply. Solar panels take up a significant amount of space once installed, and many people cannot place them on their roofs due to the construction of their buildings. These factors can make solar energy a less than ideal choice for many people, though scientists and developers around the world are concentrating on creating solutions for some of these problems.
Uses of Solar Energy
Solar energy is being used around the world. As of 2014, the top 10 countries in terms of solar energy use were Germany, Italy, China, the United States, Japan, Spain, France, Belgium, Australia, and the Czech Republic. These countries each had at least 2,000 megawatts of solar photovoltaic power installed at the time, with other European countries showing the fastest growth in solar use.
These countries are using solar energy in a variety of ways. Railroads, subways, buses, planes, and even cars can be powered by solar energy, and China is already using solar buses in its public transit system. In Australia, solar-powered race cars are being used to promote the development of other solar vehicles. Individuals can do their part by purchasing solar-powered electronic devices, like cell phones, speakers, watches, and more. Thanks to a portable battery pack that charges using solar energy, nearly any device can be powered by the sun even if it isn’t designed with its own solar battery. Solar lighting and heating are also popular uses of solar energy. Solar lights are wireless and easy to install, and space and water heaters can provide more cost-effective heating solutions.
The Future of Renewable Energy Sources
Thanks to their low environmental impact and steadily decreasing cost, renewable energy sources are likely to remain popular in the coming years. According to the Renewable Electricity Futures Study, up to 80% of U.S. energy can come from currently-available renewable technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, geothermal energy, and hydro power. However, the country generates only about 17% of its energy from renewable e energy sources, meaning that there is a large, untapped potential for energy use in the U.S. Many consumers and businesses are now demanding that their energy come from renewable sources or installing their own sources when possible in an effort to increase renewable energy use and offset the damaging effects of fossil fuels — which can pollute the air and permanently harm animal habitats — on the environment.
Many large energy companies throughout the world have announced that they would be switching their focus to remain more heavily on providing renewable energy, including EDF in France, which promised to invest more than $31 billion in solar energy in February of this year. Orsted, a Danish company, sold its oil and gas business in 2017 and is now becoming a renewable-only company, focusing on offshore wind. BP and Shell have also committed to cleaner energy, with Shell purchasing electric vehicle charging company NewMotionand planning to install charging stations at Shell gas stations throughout the world. These actions have resulted in international coverage about renewable energy sources, encouraging other companies to begin researching how they can make the switch to a system based on renewable energy.
Scientists have been encouraging the federal government to create a long-term clean energy policy that provides a favorable market for renewable energy equipment and resources, puts a price on carbon emissions, and increases funding for the research and development of renewable energy sources. With so many consumers and large energy companies throughout the world asking for easier access to cheap, reliable, and clean energy, it is likely that solar and other renewable energy sources will continue to expand and become more prevalent in our society.