Our continued use of renewable energy processes will hopefully be the key to saying goodbye to fossil fuels forever.

Many large companies and organizations across the world are aware of the importance of a renewable energy future and so they choose to implement different types of sustainable energy production in order to run their workplaces, setting a good example for employees and the wider public. The same goes for individuals and families; the installation of solar panels on roofs and wind turbines on farming land has become almost commonplace in today’s energy-conscious society.

The major types of renewable energy in use today include:

  • Solar power (the focus of this article)
  • Wind power
  • Hydropower
  • Biomass energy
  • Geothermal energy

With so many options for alternative energy and so much promise for further advancements in renewable energy technology, it isn’t difficult to imagine a world fully sustained by renewable energy processes in the future.

Image courtesy of motherearthnews

Solar Power: Leading the Renewable Energy Future

Solar power is arguably one of the most popular alternative energy sources worldwide.

Solar energy is most commonly used for heating, cooking and producing electricity. It works by trapping the sun’s rays into solar cells where it is then converted into electricity. Solar power also uses solar thermal panels to convert sunlight to heat water or air. Sunlight can be converted either directly using photovoltaics (PV), or indirectly using concentrated solar power (CSP).

The early development of solar technologies began in the 1860s and was driven by the widely-held expectation that coal would soon become scarce. However, development of solar technologies slowed down considerably in the early 20th century due to the increasing availability, economy, and utility of coal and petroleum. Today, however, society has returned its focus to developing this alternative energy as more and more people have come to the realization that products such as coal and petroleum are highly unsustainable and we are unlikely to benefit from them for much longer, not to mention the environmental effects these products have on our Earth. Sustainability is certainly the best path for the future of energy technology.

But, like any renewable energy process, solar has its pros and cons:

Pros

  • It is a renewable resource; as long as the Sun exists, we can harness its energy on Earth.
  • The generation of this power creates no water or air pollution; there is no chemical reaction involved like there is with fossil fuels.
  • Solar energy can be very efficient for practical uses such as heating and lighting.

Cons

  • Solar power does not produce energy if the sun is not shining, therefore nighttime and cloudy days can drastically limit the amount of energy produced.
  • Solar power stations can be very expensive to build.

Despite mixed opinions, many experts in the field today recognise the ability of solar to further produce Earth’s electricity and they are working to advance this sun-harnessing technology to make products more affordable, more efficient and even more sustainable in order to reach a renewable energy future.

New Solar Energy Technologies

Let’s take a look at a couple of new solar power technologies under development or that have just hit the renewable energy market.

Solar Roads

One development gaining a lot of attention from sustainability experts and the media is the Solar Roadways initiative. Solar Roadways envisions a world with solar panels instead of asphalt; this means solar panels replacing roads, footpaths, sporting courts, etc. It’s an exciting, futuristic and fairly straight forward idea that could very well become a reality in the future.

Check out this video about the solar panel road idea:

However, there has been much debate since the idea’s birth a few years ago, mainly surrounding the extreme costs that would be associated with the implementation of this solar energy endeavor. Another argument is that the materials suggested for the roads (glass, LEDs, and other mechanical materials) are just not suitable for roads, not to mention traction efficiency would be almost impossible to achieve. These roads would require more expensive care and fixes in the long run than asphalt roads.

Downtown Sandpoint 2 - small

Visualisation of solar roads. Image courtesy of Solar Roadways.

In any case, Solar Roadways received a contract from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration in 2009 to build the first ever Solar Panel Road prototype. Most competitors to the idea have suggested a smaller but, in theory, equally effective project, focusing on car park areas: building solar panel covers over car parks could be a viable solution. Cars wouldn’t be parked on top of solar panels, blocking the sun (which is what would happen with solar roads). As well as this, the solar panel covers would be keeping cars in the shade while being able to cover a large area. Many agree that this is a more practical and cost-efficient approach to developing more solar panels in the future.

Solar Windows

This approach from New Energy Technologies (NET) is already in place in the U.S., transforming an existing product into something that can generate electricity from the sun: windows. The technology enables see-through windows to generate electricity by ‘spraying’ their glass surfaces with New Energy’s electricity-generating coatings.

Check out their video to see how it works:

These solar windows are different from other existing solar technology because of the way they generate clean electricity by making use of not only the energy of natural sunlight, but also artificial sources (fluorescent and LED lighting) that are typically installed in offices, schools, and commercial buildings.

Thanks to companies and ideas like the ones mentioned above, the future of solar energy technology certainly looks bright (pun intended). And as more and more companies develop technologies to enhance the power of the sun, we are one step closer to a sustainable energy planet.

Feature Image credit: Argonne National Laboratory

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