Among all the different ways we currently can produce electricity, harnessing the power of the sun is the cleanest. The efficiency of solar panels^ has increased during the past decade, following solid research investments in renewable energy sources. Even though the installation of solar panels can take up vast amounts of space, this can be done in areas where there is not so much life to disturb, such as deserts.
Did you know that by covering less than 2% of the Great Saharan Desert with solar panels we can meet the energy consumptions needs of the entire planet? Here’s an excellent article^ that presents the calculations behind the mind-blowing fact. Interfering with the ecosystem in that 2% of desert would save countless other ecosystems from the damage done by the extraction, pollution and storage of fossil and nuclear fuels.
But the world’s energy needs will continue to increase. In the same time, we’re witnessing worsening global catastrophes due to global warming, a situation we’ve brought upon ourselves. We need to think big. Thanks to advances in mass manufacturing, we can think big. And that’s exactly what I invite you to do.
The purpose of any post in the Futurology^ category is to launch a wild, boundless speculation regarding what the future holds regarding a certain concept. To get things going, here are some of the things I imagine can happen as we begin on our journey of tapping into the power of the sun. Feel free to submit your own ideas in the comments below. With your approval I may integrate these in the article, giving proper credit.
- Our species’ solar power capabilities are a product of two main factors: the efficiency of solar panels and the covered surface. While scientists are dutifully tinkering away at increasing efficiency, engineers have to devise new ways to deploy solar energy collectors. And, thanks to transparent solar panels^, we just have earned a significant increase in the potentially covered surface. In a couple of decades, most window panes in the world might be able to collect a little bit of solar energy. The efficiency of transparent panels is, of course, not that great (currently at around 5%, compared to around 20% for opaque panels). However, what they lack for in efficiency, they can more than make up for in surface.
- It is not only buildings that can benefit from transparent solar panels. Let’s feed two birds with the same seed bag: protect freeways from rain and cities from noise by covering major arteries with a solar-collecting glass roof. The same layer could then feed energy to electrical vehicles traveling on the freeway.
- One of the most important issues to solve when it comes to the installation of solar panels in as many places as possible is their ergonomics (bulky forms) and the lack of infrastructure needed to accommodate them. Quite a bit of wiring and rebuilding is required. Not only will solar panels have to become lighter and easier to install, but governments will also have to start treating this as a public service offered to citizens willing to turn their property into mini-powerplants. This is already happening, to some extent. In many countries, installing solar panels is heavily subsidized by the government (Sweden, for example, has a 30% subsidy).
- The adoption of building standards favoring solar energy collection is also greatly needed. Buildings should come with all the wiring required to become solar collectors and to feed electricity into the local grid. Governments should incentivize building environmentally sustainable buildings through tax breaks.
- With the advent of nanomaterials and robotics, solar panel installations will become even cheaper in the years to come. Of particular interest are certain “super-materials” such as graphene^. There is a lot of enthusiasm^ surrounding graphene and solar panels, but unfortunately not that many tangible results as of yet. In any case, solar installations are bound to become easier and more affordable in the near future.
- Many houses have already started using their roof surface to lower their electricity bills. But wait until entire cities become covered in light-absorbing surfaces. We could use walls, windows and eventually even streets and sidewalks to gain energy from absorbed sunlight.
- It’s important to note that the improper use of solar power can increase global warming. That’s because what mass solar power adoption would actually do is to decrease the albedo^ of the Earth. In other words: we’d absorb more heat from the Sun. It is true that the atmosphere would be cleaner and therefore the greenhouse effect^ would be reduced, but that won’t happen overnight. So, what is the right way to use solar power?
- I’m glad I asked. How about using solar power to tackle one of the most dangerous threats we as a species have brought upon the planetary ecosystem? Solar power can not only slow global warming, but it might actually be able to reverse it. The method is simple and the technology is already in mass production. It’s called a heat inverter or “reverse cycle heat pump”^. What these babies do is to use electricity in order to extract heat from the atmosphere and transport it somewhere else (such as somebody’s home or a factory). But there’s an even better heat source than the atmosphere available: the ocean (water is better than air (0.6 vs 0.02) at conducting heat).
- One of the main victims of global warming is the planetary ocean^ (and pretty much any other body of water). Turns out the oceans are very good heat reservoirs. Turns out we also might soon be facing coastal destruction due to rising sea levels^. The oceans are warming rapidly^. How can solar power fix this? A geo-engineering project^ could consist of installing millions of heat inverters on those coasts around the world where there are warm water currents. This would contribute to cooling off the ocean while in the same time providing district heating to cities. The energy (motors & pumps) required to relocate the heat from the ocean would come from the sun.
- Actually, the solar panels for such a system could be installed on the ocean itself. The surface of the planetary ocean is quite a bit larger than that of the Sahara Desert, which I mentioned in the beginning of the article. Another advantage of having a system of solar barges, covered in panels, is that there’s less particle pollution on the ocean, so they would require less cleaning (and there’s plenty of water around to easily clean them). Keep in mind, however, that geoengineering can be an arrogant species’ last steps on a slippery slope^.
- Solar arctic installations could also help avert global warming. However, panels installed there would require a great degree of adaptability to extreme weather conditions, including an automated snow cleanup system.
- To think even bigger, how about space solar panels? In the future, these could be constructed directly in orbit, or perhaps on the Moon. Their energy could be beamed to Earth using microwaves. Even better, what if this can be combined with a public and freight transport system such as zeppelins? Huge, solar-capture zeppelins could circle the world while the space solar collector beams the energy at shorter distance, directly onto the zeppelin, which in turn is connected via a cable to a vehicle traveling on a freeway below. With the advent of advanced auto-pilot systems, such logistical tricks could soon become easy to setup and optimize.
- A space solar collector could also be used to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching certain areas of the planet. Even a 5% drop in sunlight would do miracles for countries suffering from heatwaves. Such geoengineering ideas^ aren’t new, but most of them are outrageously expensive – at least until robotic space manufacturing becomes a thing.
- A warning about space solar collection: such systems could potentially be turned into weapons. Cyberwarfare is very real^ and very dangerous. We cannot embark onto such an adventure until we, as a species, take some important steps forward when it comes to mutual trust.
The Futurology Disclaimer: I do not claim that my ideas are original. I’m sure these suggestions are just scratching the surface of what can be achieved, but hopefully they’ve scratched enough to get somebody inspired to come up with more. I’m also sure many of these ideas are already being worked on by several organizations. If any of the ideas listed by anybody on this page are original and will benefit any organization, I expect credit to be given where it’s due.
2018-06-05 – 1.0 – Written.